In Cullman County, Alabama, hundreds of people are routinely jailed before trial due to their inability to pay a bail bond for their release. The Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners intervened in a federal class action lawsuit to end the practice.
The lawsuit describes how the county operates a wealth-based justice system where conditions of release were determined by a person’s wealth. For example, plaintiff Bradley Hester, who was arrested in 2017 on a misdemeanor charge, could not pay a $1,000 bond because he was indigent. He was held in the Cullman County Jail simply because he could not afford his freedom. The SPLC and its partners sought to end this practice, alleging that Cullman County’s practices deprived indigent defendants of due process and equal protection and their fundamental right to pretrial liberty.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama issued a preliminary injunction in September 2018, which temporarily stopped Cullman County from relying on a secured bail schedule. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later reversed that preliminary injunction and found that changes that Cullman County made to its bail policies after the SPLC filed its litigation were facially constitutional. A request that the U.S. Supreme Court review the 11th Circuit decision – also known as a writ of certiorari – was denied.
Despite the 11th Circuit’s decision, the preliminary injunction allowed thousands of people to return home to their families rather than languish in jail because they could not afford a bail bond.
Although the circuit court reversed the preliminary injunction, there has not been a final ruling on the merits. The case continues in the trial court.