On Sept. 19, a 48-year-old black man named Sean Ramsey was arrested in downtown Atlanta. His crime? Holding up a hand-drawn cardboard sign which read “homeless, please help.”
Charged with an Atlanta ordinance violation which bans the solicitation of rides or business by pedestrians, Ramsey, who is currently homeless, was taken to the Atlanta City Detention Center. Legally, he should have been brought before a judge within 48 hours. That didn’t happen.
Ramsey’s case was put on a docket to be heard in the Atlanta Municipal Court on Sept. 20, the day after he was arrested. But then, a strange — and not uncommon — thing happened. He got lost in the system. He never appeared before the court. He wasn’t taken on that date, or any other date. He never even had an opportunity to request a lawyer. In his absence, the court signed an order which set a $200 bail for his case. Six days later, he was bound over from the Atlanta City Detention Center to the Fulton County Jail.
Ramsey was kept there until the evening of Nov. 29, simply because he could not afford to pay his bail. That’s 72 days behind bars, arrested for being homeless and kept in jail for being poor. The taxpayers of Fulton County paid $77.20 per day to incarcerate him, a total cost of $5,558.40 to an already cash-strapped county. His release only came about after attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights filed an emergency petition for writ of habeas corpus, a legal recourse requesting that an unlawfully detained individual be immediately brought before a judge. Ramsey’s case, unfortunately, is not unique or unusual.
Under current policy, Atlanta’s jail uses a “bail schedule” that lists a pre-set sum for each minor offense, and automatically requires money as a condition of release. There is no judicial review, which, in Ramsey’s case and in a perfect world, would have come to the obvious conclusion that a homeless man is unlikely to have a spare $200 to spend on bail. Judges often fail to make (constitutionally mandated) findings that cash bail is even necessary to assure court appearances, or protect public safety. Some judges have a blanket policy of refusing signature bonds — a bond you sign and promise to pay only if you don’t show up to your court date — to people who are homeless.
Money bail schemes harms low-income citizens. Empirical evidence shows that pretrial detention due to inability to pay increases the likelihood of conviction, the likelihood of a jail sentence, and the length of the sentence imposed. Just a few days in jail — where you are legally innocent — causes people to lose their jobs, their cars, their housing, and even custody of their children. To date, no study has found that cash bail improves public safety. Releasing arrestees on recognizance with court reminders and, when necessary, tailored conditions and supervision, costs significantly less than detaining everyone who cannot pay cash bail, and largely avoids the critical disruption of lives that result from money-based systems.
The United States is one of just two countries on Earth that continues to use a cash bail system (the only other being the Philippines.) In England and Canada, the role of a bail bondsman — a third party who agrees to pay a poor arrestee’s bail in exchange for more money down the line — is a crime. The vast majority of the world has figured out that the decision to restrict an individual’s liberty should never be governed by profit. Yet in America, in 2017, jails across the country are filled with people who are only there because they can’t afford to buy their freedom.