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Three Plaintiffs, ACLU Challenge Cash Bail System in Alamance County

Civil rights groups are challenging the judicial system's use of cash bail in Alamance County. (Adobe Stock)
Civil rights groups are challenging the judicial system's use of cash bail in Alamance County. (Adobe Stock)

November 15, 2019

GRAHAM, N. C. - The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of three people being held in the Alamance County Detention Center.

The lawsuit contends that court officials' use of cash bail violates the constitutional rights of those who can't afford to pay for their release.

Attorney Ann Webb with the ACLU of North Carolina says Alamance County has one of the highest rates of issuing secured bonds in misdemeanor cases, meaning the person has to put up the entire bond amount before they can be released.

"Our staff and community partners have spent the last year sitting in courtrooms and observing bail practices across North Carolina," Webb explained. "We were very disturbed by what we saw in many counties, but Alamance County was particularly alarming because of the high number of people held before their day in court, as well as the poor conditions in the jail."

According to county-level data from the University of North Carolina School of Government, last year just over 85% of misdemeanor cases in Alamance County required secured bonds. That's one of the highest rates in the state, second only to Franklin County's rate of 87.6%.

One problem, according to Webb, is that when setting bail, local magistrates don't consider a person's ability to pay.

"What we've seen in the cases of our clients is that bail is set exclusively on information about the charges that have been brought, potentially a criminal record, and very little other information," she said.

Webb pointed out that, because being unable to afford bail can lead to job loss, individuals are more likely to plead guilty, even when innocent, just so they can go home.

As she put it, "It has created two criminal justice systems - one for the rich, and one for the rest of us. People who cannot afford their bail are locked up while their cases go through the courts, which can take weeks or months, or even longer."

According to the lawsuit, about 78% of the 350 people currently locked up in the Alamance County Detention Center have not been convicted and are awaiting trial.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC