lpccFILE

Inmates are escorted into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center Thursday, September 22, 2016, in Lafayette, La.

Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Two civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit alleging the practice of setting bail in the Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes without considering whether a defendant can afford it amounts to an unconstitutional punishment of the poor.

 At issue is the practice of not taking into account a defendant's ability to pay when initially setting bail, including the use of a preset bail amounts for many misdemeanor offenses.

Lawyers with Civil Rights Corps and the MacArthur Justice Center filed the lawsuit Monday on behalf of Edward Little, a 37-year-old Carencro man who was booked June 3 on a felony theft charge and who, according to the lawsuit, does not have the means to pay his bail of $3,000 or even the $375 needed to secure his release through a bail bondsman.

“Edward Little, the named plaintiff in this case, is in jail tonight because he and his family cannot pay a few hundred dollars,” Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said in a written statement.

He continued, “He has not been found guilty of a crime. And he has not been found to be dangerous or a flight risk. But he is in jail anyway because he does not have enough money. Hundreds of thousands of other people like Mr. Little are in jail tonight because of their poverty. This is unconstitutional, and it has to stop.”

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office declined comment on the suit Tuesday, saying it had forwarded details of the complaint to the agency's attorneys to review.  

Civil rights group across the country have taken an increasing interest in challenging high bails that serve to keep lower income defendants behind bars for weeks pending trial while those with the financial means are released.

In Louisiana, a lawsuit challenging bail policies in Ascension Parish was settled in 2015 with an agreement that defendants be given affordable bail amounts, and the MacArthur Justice Center in March filed a lawsuit challenging bail policies in Bossier and Webster parishes.

"Lafayette is not alone in the way they do things. It's all across the state that similar practices exist, and we hope to change that," said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.

Foley said poor defendants might spend weeks behind bars on crimes that carry a fine of no more than a few hundred dollars, costing local governments many times more in incarceration expenses and making it even more difficult for defendants to get their lives in order.

"The overall cost to society is huge," he said.

The lawsuit seeks a formal ruling that local bail policies are unconstitutional and an order barring local judges from setting bail without taking into account a defendant's finances.

Fifteenth Judicial District Chief Judge David Blanchet could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.​