36th District Court addresses cash bond discrimination with new policy in Detroit -- What we know

‘It punishes people for not what they’ve done but what they don’t have’

The current cash bail system often leaves poor people locked up, jeopardizing their livelihoods. These changes aim to fix that by considering things like income and race when setting bail.

DETROIT – Michigan’s largest district court says change is coming.

On Tuesday, the 36th District Court, judges, leaders like Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and civil rights advocates announced a historic agreement for major reform to the cash bail system to level the playing field for working-class Detroiters.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan is a civil rights nonprofit that filed a lawsuit against the 36th District Court in 2018. The lawsuit argues the cash bond system is discriminatory against lower-class citizens.

Phil Mayor, ACLU of Michigan Senior Staff Attorney, said the system was originally created to ensure people would appear in court but said now it has a different impact.

“It punishes people for not what they’ve done but what they don’t have,” said Mayor.

Mayor said a good example of that is one of his clients cited in the lawsuit, Katrina Gardner, who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

“Ms. Gardner never had to serve a day in jail for the actual offense, only for not being able to afford bail,” Mayor said.

For the last three years, ACLU has worked closely with the district court to create an agreement where judges would have to consider how much someone can afford before setting a bond.

“Not just taking the economic realities, but they’re still going to take into account the dangerousness of the offense,” said 36th District Court Chief Judge William McConico. “They’re also going to take into account if this person poses a flight risk, and so this makes a holistic system and makes it a fair system.”

Judge Kenneth King said they were already doing it, but this policy takes it one step forward to make sure judges consider more.

“Is this person being held just because they don’t have the money to post the bond?” said King. “If this person was to plead guilty right now, would they spend a single day in jail? Does it make any sense for me to hold them in jail because they can’t make bond, and if it doesn’t, then I have to act accordingly.”

It’s different when it comes to someone charged with a dangerous crime.

King said, “I handle some of the toughest cases in the city of Detroit that involve murders and sexual assaults. So these people, those charges, are inherently concerning because you don’t want someone posing a risk to the community.”

Mayor said Washington D.C. and New Jersey have similar policies, but the hope is this sparks more criminal justice reform in Michigan.

“This agreement is a model for how courts can and should adjust their system to both protect the public, protect judicial discretion, and simultaneously make sure that we don’t have an unequal system that punishes people not for what they’ve done but for being poor,” Mayor said.

About the Author:

Megan Woods is thrilled to be back home and reporting at Local 4. She joined the team in September 2021. Before returning to Michigan, Megan reported at stations across the country including Northern Michigan, Southwest Louisiana and a sister station in Southwest Virginia.