If America's constitutional principle of justice had to be boiled down to four words, they would be: "innocent until proven guilty." That's at the core of everything that happens from the arrest to the courtroom. A trial establishes guilt. Punishment is meted out only after a guilty verdict is rendered.
Yet hundreds of low-income criminal defendants in St. Louis who can't come up with thousands of dollars for cash bail are routinely jailed by the city, often for more than a month, before they can even talk to a public defender.
Those who can pay are free until trial. Those who can't — even those accused of relatively minor, nonviolent crimes — remain behind bars for extended periods, prohibited from even contesting the bail amount, until the system decides to start the trial that will determine whether they've committed any crime.
This is incarceration for poverty, pure and simple. It must end.
ArchCity Defenders filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis against the city, Sheriff Vernon Betts and numerous judges and other officials, the Post-Dispatch's Celeste Bott reported. "Every day in the city of St. Louis, presumptively innocent individuals remain in jail simply because they are too poor to pay for their freedom," the suit says.
The plaintiffs don't argue that the concept of requiring bail while awaiting trial is inherently unjust. Rather, they allege it is being applied here with "a complete lack of process," says ArchCity Executive Director Blake Strode.
The plaintiff alleges, for example, that judges who initially set bail don't follow standard legal guidelines, such as assessing the necessity of cash bail, the defendant's ability to pay, the available alternatives to bail or other factors. The average cash bail is around $25,000.
If defendants attempt to argue over the necessity or amount of the bail, they are told a lawyer has to make that argument, the lawsuit adds. A defendant who can't afford a lawyer has to wait until a public defender is appointed — a wait that often lasts a month or more. The defendant sits behind bars that whole time.
The announcement Wednesday by Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer of new rules restricting use of bail by the state's courts adds much-needed clarity, but ArchCity is pressing ahead with its suit anyway, as it should. Setting new rules doesn't mean much if, as alleged, the city court system is ignoring the rules already in place.
Certainly, there are cases in which high bail is appropriate. But it's a denial of due process if St. Louis' justice system automatically jails defendants for weeks, awaiting trial while they receive no legal representation and no avenue to argue the conditions of bail. Ultimately, it's a denial of the core principle of "innocent until proven guilty."
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH