Supreme Court Turns Away Georgia Cash Bail Challenge

Justices leave intact a ruling allowing detention for 48 hours of those who cannot immediately pay for their release.


Jail cell
Bill H /

On Monday, the Supreme Court showed its reluctance to wade into bail reform efforts by turning away a challenge to how Georgia's system's cash demands can leave poor people trapped behind bars even though they haven't yet been convicted.

The court denied to hear Maurice Walker v. City of Calhoun, Georgia, a case challenging how long courts and jails in the state can hold a person after they are arrested if they cannot afford the bail amount that's demanded on a schedule.

Walker was arrested in September 2015 in Calhoun for being a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol. He was ordered to pay a bail of $160 if he wanted to be free. Calhoun was indigent and had a monthly income of $530 of Social Security disability payments. He ended up spending six days in jail before being released. It could have ended up even longer. Calhoun's court only heard requests for bail reductions or pretrial releases on Mondays and this happened around Labor Day. Mind you, the sentence for the crime here, if he were to be found guilty, doesn't even call for jail, just a fine of up to $500. So because he couldn't afford his bail, he actually faced more severe punishment than the crime itself warranted.

Walker, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, sued, arguing that it was a violation of his constitutional rights to be kept stuck in jail for a week for a misdemeanor offense solely because he didn't have the cash to pay for bail.

Since the suit, Calhoun has changed its policy so that people who cannot afford bail will see a judge within 48 hours in order to make the case that bail should be lowered or that they should be released. But nevertheless the legal challenge continued, asking the federal courts to weigh in on whether even 48 hours was too long to have to wait to see a judge if you can't afford your bail.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the 48-hour policy, and the Supreme Court has declined to consider the timeframe (the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief supporting Walker's side, which you can read here).

This is the second time in the last six months that the Supreme Court has turned away a case asking justices to determine the parameters of how cash bail may or may not be used. In November, the court declined to hear a case that was almost the opposite of this Georgia case. In New Jersey, a defendant, represented by a bail bond industry insurance underwriter, sued for the right to pay bail for pretrial freedom. The courts in New Jersey have mostly eliminated cash bail in favor of a system of pretrial monitoring to make sure defendants return to court. The defendant wanted to exercise the right to pay a cash bail and forgo monitoring by the courts. In that case, a federal appeals court ruled that having a right to request pretrial release is not the same as having a right to cash bail. New Jersey was permitted to eliminate money demands as long as it had a robust system to release defendants.

Read more about the Walker case here and more about bail reform efforts around the country here.