BATON ROUGE, La. – Court officials in a Louisiana community often hold poor people in jail for months just because they can't afford bail, a federal lawsuit claims.
Civil rights lawyers are suing the sheriff who oversees the Lafayette Parish jail, a state judge and another court official responsible for setting bail amounts for people arrested in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes. The class action accuses them of running a "wealth-based detention scheme" that violates the constitutional rights of impoverished people.
"Many of the 1,099 people detained pretrial in the Lafayette Parish Jail would be immediately released if they could deposit enough money," the suit says.
Attorneys from the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Civil Rights Corps filed the class action Monday on behalf of a man arrested Saturday on a theft charge. Edward Little's suit says he lives on a farm in Carencro with his wife and their two children, earning a modest living by collecting, refurbishing and selling items over the internet. His family can't afford to pay $375 to a for-profit bonding agent, the suit says.
Similar wealth-based bail practices are being challenged in court in other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, said Eric Foley, one of Little's lawyers.
"This is a problem nationwide," he said.
The three defendants — Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber, Judge Kristian Earles and Lafayette court Commissioner Thomas Frederick — didn't immediately respond to calls seeking comment Tuesday.
The suit says Frederick presides over initial court hearings that typically last just 25 to 30 seconds for people arrested in the district, and refuses to address conditions of release. "People who cannot afford to pay predetermined amounts of money unrelated to their actual financial resources often spend months in jail awaiting the disposition of their cases. They are all presumed innocent," the suit says.
The suit seeks a court order permanently barring officials at the state's 15th Judicial District Court from using bail money to detain anyone without inquiring about their ability to pay the set amount or considering "non-financial alternative conditions of release."
Lawyers from the MacArthur Justice Center have filed similar lawsuits in two other Louisiana parishes.
A suit filed in March accuses Bossier Parish court officials of discriminating against poor people whose bail is automatically set under a fixed schedule following their arrests on minor criminal charges. In September 2015, a settlement resolved a class action that accused Ascension Parish of operating an unlawful, generic "bail schedule" that jailed poor people for up to three days without seeing a judge.