When Bail Is Set, the Rich Walk and the Poor Go to Jail
Lael Henterley reports in the Seattle Times:
Cedric Smith learned that a warrant for his arrest had been issued when he was turned down for an apartment.
The warrant connected back to a pending low-level assault charge stemming from a complaint made after a drunk woman tried to barge into his apartment but was blocked by the door, and he was confident the case would be dropped as soon as he explained the circumstances. Smith took a day off work at K2 Sports and headed to Seattle Municipal Court to resolve the warrant. He expected he’d be given another court date—after all, he’d shown up to take care of this on his own free will.
The judge set Smith’s bail at $10,000; he went from the courtroom to the ninth floor of the King County Detention Center to await his next court date. Smith, who was employed and had some money saved, thought he’d be able to put up $1,000 and bond out. But the bail-bond agency said he lacked the collateral to secure his release. After 10 days the court offered Smith time served in exchange for a guilty plea, but he refused. He sat in jail and waited until, 41 days later, his case was dismissed.
When Smith went into court at the beginning of the ordeal, his life was as stable as it had ever been. He had a full-time job, a stable place to live, and the means to support himself. After his release, he found himself back on food stamps and struggling just to make it to the next day.
Smith isn’t the only low-level defendant whose life has been turned upside down because he was accused of a crime. A 2015 study by the Seattle Municipal Court’s Research, Planning and Evaluation Group found that in 2014, 31 percent of in-custody defendants charged with misdemeanors in Seattle Municipal Court—the busiest court in Washington—ended up waiting for their next court date in jail because they couldn’t come up with the cash to secure the freedom they’re supposedly entitled to until found guilty. While there, they lose jobs, homes, children, and dignity.
This isn’t how bail is supposed to work in Washington. State law mandates a presumption of release in all but capital cases. All pretrial defendants should be released on their promise to show up for court unless a judge determines a person is likely to fail to appear in court, commit a violent crime, tamper with witnesses, or obstruct justice. When conditions are imposed to guarantee appearance at future court dates, the law says they should be the least restrictive conditions necessary. Electronic home monitoring, day reporting, and community court are all far less restrictive than incarceration, but only 11 percent of those arraigned in custody at Seattle Municipal Court are assigned to specialty courts or less-restrictive supervision. Instead, judges are quick to assign bail, even in cases where defendants don’t have the means to pay $50, let alone $10,000, creating a two-tiered justice system.
“The system is flawed when people with money can afford to bail out who might actually be a danger to the community and poor people can’t afford to get out on a simple misdemeanor trespass charge,” says Twyla Carter of the King County Department of Public Defense. . .