A team of civil rights lawyers says Calhoun, Ga., officials are unfairly keeping poor people behind bars.
Attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights and Equal Justice Under Law filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Rome against the city, asking Judge Harold Murphy to stop Calhoun leaders from demanding that jail inmates pay bond to get out.
The lawyers represent 54-year-old Maurice Walker, whom Calhoun police arrested on a charge of being a pedestrian under the influence. In an affidavit, Walker wrote that he has a mental disorder, hasn't been able to work in five years and lives with his sister on about $530 a month in disability payments.
Walker is being held in the Gordon County Jail in lieu of a $160 bond. In a civil complaint, his lawyers say Walker and his sister cannot afford to make that payment. He will remain behind bars until he can make his first appearance in Calhoun's municipal court.
"I do not know when court will be," Walker wrote in his affidavit. "I keep asking guards and have received three different answers so far. I cannot afford to buy my release."
Traditionally, according to Walker's complaint, Calhoun holds municipal court every Monday. But officials had to push back Walker's first appearance hearing because Sept. 7 was Labor Day.
Walker's lawyers, Sarah Geraghty and Alec Karakatsanis, say he is one of a handful of Calhoun residents who have to stay behind bars for up to a week because they cannot afford the city's bond. According to their complaint, the city charges a bond between $90 and $1,000. The lawyers complain that law enforcement leaders do not consider individual factors — such as whether a defendant can afford that bond.
Calhoun officials have not yet filed a response. City Attorney George Govignon did not return multiple calls seeking comment late Friday afternoon.
"Even a few days in jail can have devastating consequences in a person's life, such as the loss of a job or the inability to arrange safe alternative care for minor children," Geraghty wrote in a court filing this week.
She and Karakatsanis argue the city's policies violate Walker's rights to due process because he has to stay in jail while waiting for his first-appearance hearing. They said that, on average, about five people a week are in Walker's shoes.
They have proposed a couple of alternatives. In Jefferson County, Ala., they say, defendants can leave jail on a signature bond, meaning they can leave jail for free but promise they will pay a certain amount of money if they don't show up for court. Alternatively, in Washington, D.C., jail officers release defendants on their own recognizance, knowing they face further punishment if they don't go to court.
In addition to asking Murphy to stop Calhoun from demanding cash bonds, the lawyers want the judge to enter a judgment paying Walker for damages he has suffered behind bars.
"No human being should be kept in jail for any amount of time," Karakatsanis wrote, "solely because of his or her poverty."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.