‘If I could buy freedom, I would’: LA residents who can’t

Los Angeles residents jailed because they can’t afford to pay bail have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the system that often keeps low-income people behind bars before they’ve been charged.

The complaint was filed on Monday on behalf of six people in LA jails who were recently arrested but have not yet seen a judge, been arraigned or assigned a public defender.

The case is the first to challenge LA’s “bail schedule”, the county’s formal guidelines for the cash amounts based on alleged offenses.

LA county is home to the largest jail system in the US, which has recently been mired in scandals involving claims of widespread physical abuse against incarcerated people and “barbaric” conditions where people are chained to chairs for days and made to sleep on concrete floors. Bail leaves thousands of poor people behind bars, according to Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project and the Civil Rights Corps, two non-profit groups that filed the suit.

The consequences of this bail system can be fatal, lawyers said. The complaint lists 10 people who died in LA jails while they couldn’t afford to pay bail and before they were arraigned and formally charged.

The bail they faced ranged from $500 to $100,000.

One plaintiff, Phillip Urquidi, 25, lives in his pickup truck and makes $500 a week at a temp staffing agency. He was arrested by the Los Angeles police department (LAPD) on 9 November for a charge of vandalism alleging damage of $400 or more, the suit says. He was told he would be released the next morning, but instead has remained in jail with his bail set at $20,000.

Urquidi has not been given a public defender or seen a judge. He has been housed in a bedbug-infested cell and unable to take his medications, the suit says. His girlfriend has been left alone in their truck and has no money for gas. Two days after his arrest, he was told that the district attorney did not plan to prosecute him, but he still hasn’t been released, according to the complaint.

In a handwritten declaration, Urquidi wrote: “If I could afford to buy my freedom, I would. The conditions here are awful – expired food, trash everywhere, it’s unsanitary … There is no one in my family who could come bail me out.”

Another jailed plaintiff, Terilyn Goldson, became unhoused earlier this year and had recently been living in a tent community, hoping to transfer to a shelter, the suit says. She was arrested on 9 November by the LA sheriff’s department (LASD) on a vehicle code charge of reckless evading. Her bail is $75,000.

“I have family members who love me … but that is so much money I can’t imagine how they would be able to help me,” Goldson wrote, adding that she has been forced to wear a gown that does not properly cover her and has left her cold.

Leslie Bailey, director of Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project, said she had visited Goldson in jail and that the conditions were freezing and the gown had left Goldson exposed: “It is so heartbreaking to see them in this situation and to know that if they had the money, they wouldn’t be suffering like this.”

Another defendant, Susana Perez, is unhoused and had been living in a van for three years and was arrested by LAPD for vandalism, with $20,000 bail: “I cannot afford to hire an attorney and I do not have a public defender yet,” she wrote in her declaration. Perez said her food stamps had recently been cut off and that she needed to get out of jail so she could complete her paperwork: “When I suffer, my family suffers too. I want a safe and stable place to live.”

All of the plaintiffs are unhoused or precariously housed and struggling with poverty.

The attorneys cited a California supreme court ruling that stated “conditioning detention on the arrestee’s financial resources, without ever assessing whether a defendant can meet those conditions or whether the state’s interests could be met by less restrictive alternatives” was unconstitutional. The complaint argues that there is no public safety justification and plaintiffs are not considered too dangerous to release. Others with identical charges would get out immediately if they had the funds, the suit says.

“Being jailed for even short periods of time may cause them to lose their jobs, their housing, or custody of their children,” the complaint says.

The suit was filed against the city and county of LA and the LAPD and LASD. The LA city attorney’s office declined to comment and spokespeople for the other agencies did not immediately respond to inquiries on Monday.

A similar lawsuit in San Francisco led to changes in the bail system, and advocates in Los Angeles hope this challenge will undo the bail policies that leave people incarcerated based on their inability to pay.

“The legal system can push people further towards the brink rather than doing anything to protect public safety or help society at large,” said Brian Hardingham, another attorney on the case.

Bail has become a national issue in the US and a point of debate during the midterm elections, during which some candidates focused on crime concerns and opposing criminal justice reform. Defenders of cash bail, including law enforcement groups, have argued that bail is necessary for safety, but research has suggested otherwise. A reform in a Texas county eliminating cash bail for some offenses led to a reduction in jail time and recidivism, a recent study found. Research has also repeatedly shown that people are more likely to plead guilty if they are in jail and can’t afford bail.