Lawyers Fight Unjust Laws

courthouse

From Today’s New York Times, an article about the important work that Alec Karakatsanis and his colleagues (with the assistance of several HLS students) have been doing to fight systemic injustice around the country.

In January, Christy Dawn Varden was arrested in a Walmart parking lot, charged with shoplifting and three other misdemeanors, and taken to jail. There, she was told that if she had $2,000, she could post bail and leave. If she did not, she would wait a week before seeing a judge. Ms. Varden, who lived with her mother and two children, had serious mental and physical health problems; her only income was her monthly food stamp allotment.

Two days later, a civil rights lawyer named Alec Karakatsanis sued on behalf of Ms. Varden, alleging that bail policies in Clanton, a city of 8,619, discriminated against the poor by imprisoning them while allowing those with money to go free.

The response was quick: Clanton, while defending its policies, told the court that defendants would be able to see a judge within 48 hours. Within a couple of months, the city agreed to release most misdemeanor defendants immediately, without their posting bail.

Since then, Mr. Karakatsanis has sued six additional jurisdictions in four different states, representing single mothers, homeless men and people with mental disabilities, all who would have been free but for some ready cash. His novel legal strategy has proved effective: So far five of the cities have changed their policies. The suits, which are now being replicated around the country, have won support from the federal Justice Department and rulings that endorse his assertion that the money bail system is unfair to the poor.

There are many more Clantons among the nation’s 15,000 trial courts, civil rights lawyers say, and the key to broad change lies with state and local governments. So courthouse by courthouse, groups as small as Equal Justice Under Law, founded by Mr. Karakatsanis and a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Phil Telfeyan, and as large as the American Civil Liberties Union are waging a guerrilla campaign to reverse what they consider unconstitutional but widespread practices that penalize the poor. These include jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers.

More often than not, they are winning — and even pebble-size victories can have a large ripple effect. After a handful of lawsuits in Alabama accused a private probation company of using the threat of jail to collect high fees, the company announced this week that it would leave the state.

In Ohio, a report from the A.C.L.U. on debtors’ prisonlike practices, which jailed offenders for failing to pay fines, helped win changes without legal action. In Washington State, a similar report on four counties led to changes in three; this month, the A.C.L.U. sued the fourth, Benton County, saying it still refused to assess people’s ability to pay fines before jailing them. This week, the organization filed another debtors’ prison case against Biloxi, Miss.

Read entire article here.

Watch related video here.

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