A federal judge late Thursday ordered the release of an Alabama woman who civil rights groups say was held in jail because she couldn’t afford to pay bail.
U.S. District Chief Judge W. Keith Watkins granted the Southern Poverty Law Center’s request for the temporary restraining order that immediately freed Kandace Edwards, 29, of Roanoke, Alabama.
Edwards is the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday by the SPLC and other civil rights groups accusing Randolph County’s judges, sheriff and circuit clerk of violating the constitutional rights of people charged with misdemeanors and felonies by jailing them if they can’t afford to pay bail, leading to a modern-day debtors prison.
The lawsuit noted that those who face the same charges but can afford bail are freed until trial.
Edwards was arrested Wednesday for forging a $75 check and jailed because she couldn’t afford to pay $7,500 in bail. She was released late Thursday.
A hearing is scheduled May 26 to determine whether to convert the temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction.
“Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime,” said Sam Brooke of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was among several groups filing the lawsuit in federal court in Alabama. “Keeping people in jail cells for weeks or months simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom coerces people to plead guilty even if they are innocent, wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary detention, and is a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.”
The suit names the sheriff of Randolph County, the court clerk and a couple of judges as defendants. A telephone message seeking comment from the county commission’s office was not immediately returned.
The suit was filed on behalf of Edwards, who has two young children and is seven months pregnant. The suit said Edwards served in the Army National Guard for four years but recently lost her job and has been homeless since December. She also has a history of mental health issues.
“Randolph County reveals the cruelty of money bail,” said Brandon Buskey, an attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “They sit in jail for days or weeks waiting for a release hearing, while their jobs disappear and their families suffer.”
Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.
The lawsuit against Randolph County is a continuation of the efforts to end wealth-based bail detention in Alabama and is challenging that practice for the first time in the state district court, the organizations said.