A woman accused of shoplifting spends a week in jail because she can't post a $2,000 bond. A man is sent to Riker's Island for three weeks because he can't afford $1,500 in bail. His alleged crime? Possessing a soda straw, which police officers said was illegal drug paraphernalia. Both have been identified as victims of the "bail trap." That's the system through which prosecutors use requests for high bail -- a few thousand for a misdemeanor here, a million for a homicide there -- to pressure defendants into taking a plea agreement.
But one judge in Texas is issuing her own protest against the tactic. When prosecutors asked Bell County Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown to set a $1 million bond, the judge changed the amount to $4 billion. Yes, billion with a B.
A Whole Bunch of Zeroes
Brown's billion-dollar bond came after Antonio Willis turned himself into police in early February. No mere alleged shoplifter or straw-holder, the 25-year-old man was accused of murder. Brown had wanted to set bond at $100,000, according to the Associated Press -- an amount more than most people in the area would not be able to post.
Law enforcement officials had a different idea. They asked for $1 million.
"I changed the 1 to a 4 and added a whole bunch of zeroes," the judge said. "At some point in time, I had to alert the system that I am a new judge and I'm committed to changing the system. And this was the perfect time, because this man had come in and turned himself in and they were starting the bail at $1 million."
"I set it as high as I could to illustrate the fact that it's ridiculous how we are railroading people without them even having their constitutional rights to a fair trial to determine if they are guilty or innocent," Brown told one news outlet. "People are going to prison like it's adult day care," she told another.
Willis's bond was later dropped to $151,000 by a state district judge.
Criticism of the Bail System
Excessive bond requirements have become an increasingly visible issue in recent years. In 2013, for example, Jonathan Lippman, then chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, declared that "Incarcerating indigent defendants for no other reason than that they cannot meet even a minimum bail amount strips our justice system of its credibility and distorts its operation."
Groups like Equal Justice Under Law have started filing federal lawsuits, saying that the bonds system violates the Constitution by creating a "two-tiered" justice system, "one for the wealthy and one for everyone else." A few jurisdictions have begun reforming the bail system themselves.
Still, some raised eyebrows at Brown's billion-dollar protest. Thea Whalen, executive director of the Texas Justice Court Training Center, told the AP that "We would not ever advocate in our sessions to use due process rights as an opportunity to make a statement.
"But," she continued, "that's a personal decision that each judge could make."