When Poverty Becomes Criminality

Biko Mandela Gray
May 26, 2016 · 4 min read
This is what a bail hearing looks like in Harris County. The defendant stands in front of a TV screen, with no lawyer.

Maranda ODonnell shouldn’t be in jail. But she is.

Her poverty has made her an enemy of the state. Before May 18, she was struggling to make ends meet for her and her four-year-old daughter. Sleeping from place to place, Maranda worked hard to find a job — and she had just gotten one at a local restaurant. Things were looking up.

And then May 18th happened.

On that day, she was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor of driving with an invalid license. The judge told her she owed $2500 for bail — for a misdemeanor charge. When Maranda tried to speak up about the fact that she could not afford the $2500 bail, her protest fell on deaf ears: “You can talk to me all you want, but it’s not going to change the outcome.” So, because she isn’t rich (or at least upper-middle-class), she’s been sitting in jail, separated from her four-year-old daughter, and probably now jobless. Her extended incarceration has placed her back on the bottom rung of a socioeconomic ladder that will now be much harder to climb. Her lack of money has become her own undoing.

The unfortunate reality is that Maranda isn’t alone in that jail. At any given time, there are 500 inmates in Harris County jail who have been charged with misdemeanors, but not convicted of them. Because they cannot pay the money bail assessed to their cases, they’re resigned to live in a sea of concrete while time slips by and job prospects wither away. If Maranda had the bail money, she would’ve never seen the inside of a holding cell, let alone felt the rough cotton of an orange jumpsuit. In Harris County, we put people in jail for being poor, and no one in the criminal justice system bats an eye.

Well, no one batted an eye, until recently.

Maranda has now found solace in the advocacy of the nonprofit law group Equal Justice Under Law. The law group filed a lawsuit against the county last week, citing ODonnell as the primary plaintiff. In the suit, the lawyers argue that “Harris County’s wealth-based pretrial detention system violates the… United States Constitution,” and cites the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and County magistrates as the principal defendant parties.

And she’s not alone: 77 percent of the inmates in the Harris County jail “are being kept in jail cells prior to trial, despite the presumption of innocence, because they cannot afford to pay money bail.” This is 17% higher than the national average of 60% — which is already incredibly high in the first place. The judges, magistrates, and the Sheriff’s office are aware of these numbers (that’s all that really matters to elected officials); and with numbers like this, you’d think they would want to stop this process.

But they don’t. They like things the way they are. While they could easily offer “personal bonds” that will ensure the person’s attendance without having him or her pay a dime, the lawsuit cites that the courts only offered personal bonds in a paltry 8% of misdemeanor cases in the last year. There’s only one lesson to be learned from this: the county is fresh out of fucks to give for the poor.

The usual argument is that money bail ensures that people will show up to court, but the lawyers argue otherwise: the lawsuit shows that 90 percent of people in other jurisdictions show up to court without having the burden of paying exorbitant bail amounts (you can read the lawsuit in full here). The difference is a matter of intent and will: other jurisdictions have put policies in place that help defendants get to court at their assigned dates and times, but the people out here are either too lazy or too complacent to actually make change; they’d rather get sued than change the tradition of punishing the poor for being poor. One hearing officer told a group of arrestees “Don’t ask me for a personal bond” at the bail hearing.

I’m sure he got his request.

And I’m sure the arrestees are paying for their compliance with their freedom.

Biko Mandela Gray

Written by

Assistant professor of American Religion. #blackwords matter. cash app: $bikogray

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