How Bail Bonds Create Two Justice Systems: One for the Rich, One for the Poor

“We have created debtor prisons in this country and that’s just morally reprehensible.”

By Rhonda FanningMay 30, 2016 10:54 am

Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old Texan arrested and charged with assaulting a public servant at a traffic stop on July 10, 2015, ended up in jail in part because she didn’t have $500 to make bail.

Robert Durst, on the other hand, was arrested in New Orleans on charges of murder for slaying a friend, then released on a $2.5 million bond.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) says those two disparate cases come to mind as examples of two separate systems of justice in the country: “One for the rich and one for the poor.”

“That system’s just not right,” Ellis says. “You ought to keep someone if there is an indication that they are a danger to the public, possibly if they are a danger to themselves. But we shouldn’t have a system where you essentially keep people who don’t have money, let people go who do have money. I contend that violates the Equal Protection Clause and a host of state and federal statutes.”

Ellis advocates strongly for Texas criminal justice overhaul. Although there are Texas laws that mandate judges setting bail to take into account a person’s ability to pay, Ellis says litigation and advocacy around the issue are important because not all judges are following these laws. There’s also the estimated 70 percent of people who have been incarcerated but not convicted of a crime, Ellis says.

“It’s a host of issues,” Ellis says.

In some cases people are not given lawyers for magistration or arraignments. When they are given lawyers, Ellis says, the lawyer has an inherent conflict of interest – the judge appointed them and they feel duty-bound to keep the judge from getting angry so they can get another case.

“So you go into the indigent defense issue. You go into this ridiculous bail bonds schedule system,” Ellis says.

In Texas, a person is typically taken to a local law enforcement station for booking before they are incarcerated. Once they are booked, a person has a few options for release.

Bail is designed to guarantee that a defendant will show up for their court date. A person can post cash for bail, enlist help from an insurance company or be released after undergoing an interview process to determine whether they are likely to appear in court.

No matter the option a person chooses, it can take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours for them to be released, depending on whether they are in a county or city jail.

“They ought to just eliminate the bail schedule.” Ellis says. “They ought to rely more on pretrial services divisions, assessment-based recommendations. They ought to increase the use of low-level personal bonds when it’s appropriate and in the interest of public safety.”

Ellis says part of the problem is that jails are a revenue generator. Companies profit from contracting with jails to provide goods and services. And it’s no secret who they’re profiting off of, Ellis says.

“(It’s) the people who are essentially the voiceless,” he says. “A disproportionate number of them are minorities. It’s just a basic insensitivity. … This is a money-driven system and it preys on the poor. We have created debtor prisons in this country and that’s just morally reprehensible.”

Prepared for web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.