Is this debtor’s prison?

We’re paying big bucks to keep poor people in jail — before they’ve been convicted of crimes

By Kate Abbey-Lambertz

If you’re arrested and held at the Detroit Detention Center, you’re probably waiting for arraignment at 36th District Court — not in person, but through the jail version of Skype. In just a couple minutes, a judge will see you by video conference and review the details of your alleged crime. You’re not allowed to ask questions or explain yourself, despite the disorienting process.

Then, she’ll decide how much your bail payment will be. And then, if you’re like many arrestees, you’ll hear an amount you and your family can’t afford. So you’ll stay behind bars until your trial, presumption of innocence not applicable.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal class action lawsuit this weekend over what they call a “two-tiered legal system” that discriminates against poor people and disproportionately affects black residents by keeping them imprisoned if they can’t afford bail.

“A person’s freedom should not depend on how much money they have,” Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan Deputy Legal Director, said in a statement. “The money bail system has morphed into mass incarceration of the poor. It punishes people not for what they’ve done but because of what they don’t have.”

Statement (dictated to an attorney) from plaintiff Starmanie Jackson, 24. 

In the sample cases the ACLU reviewed at 36th District Court, 85% of the accused individuals were ordered to pay bail, and 95% didn’t have attorneys. What’s more, being locked up before trial in a factor in the outcome of your case, with higher conviction rates and lengthier sentences.

The suit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs. They described losing new jobs because they were stuck in jail, health problems and concerns about their kids. One man, Davontae Ross, was allegedly arrested for failing to show up at a hearing after getting a ticket for being in a park at night. He couldn’t afford his $200 bail, so had to stay in jail two weeks before his trial date.

That kind of time seems like an extreme punishment for an unconvicted minor offense. But justice aside, the numbers don’t add up — almost 1,000 people are held at Wayne County Jails each night on pre-trial detention, usually because they can’t pay bail. It costs $165 to house each person per day — or $59 million in taxpayer dollars each year.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl