The cost of a broken bail system isn't just monetary — it is crushingly human. Below are the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by bail.
For Grand Rapids attorney H. James Telman, Djibril Niyomugabo was much more than a former client. Although he’d represented Djibril when the teenager had two minor scrapes with the law, Mr. Telman saw the Rwandan refugee with an unsettled homelife as someone in need of a friend and mentor.
A devout Christian, Mr. Telman taught the boy scripture in sabbath school class. As a basketball coach, he showed Djibril how to set picks and make lay-ups. And as a mentor, he provided the him with guidance when needed, and a place to live for six months when he had no place else to turn.
“He was a good kid,” Mr. Telman says. “There were issues at home, but he was a good kid.”
Now, Djibril is dead.
In 2016, at the age of 18, Djibril was arrested for allegedly smashing a car window and breaking a bottle of pricey wine he’d found inside. Unable to afford the $200 bail required for his release, Djibril sat behind bars for three days before committing suicide, hanging himself in a Kent County jail cell.
Djibril Niyomugabo's basketball jersey signed with messages from his teammates. It was hung at his funeral.
Saying he is a firm believer that people who commit crimes should “get what they deserve,” Mr. Telman just as firmly believes that there is no way justice is served by having someone who is not a flight risk and is accused of committing a non-violent crime sit in jail simply because they are too poor to make bail.
The way Mr. Telman sees it, the lack of $200 cost Djibril his life.
“I think there’s no question he’d still be alive if he hadn’t been forced to stay in that jail cell for three days,” Mr. Telman says. “I think he was probably despondent, and feeling like a screw-up. Given the circumstances, I don’t know that I’d be able to stand it if something like that happened to me at that age. As they say, ‘There but for the grace of God go you or I.’”
Azairian Cartman’s future looked bright. As a 24-year-old African-American student at Northern Michigan University, he eagerly anticipated spending a semester studying abroad in Morocco in 2017 before finishing his studies and getting a bachelor’s degree. A member of the Army Reserves with no criminal record, he’d already applied to become a police officer in his hometown of Chicago.
Then two scrapes with the law that ended with him sitting in jail because he couldn’t afford the bail imposed on him seriously derailed all his plans. Two women he’d been involved with accused Mr. Cartman of stealing from them. One claimed he stole $150; the other said he’d taken an Xbox. Complicating matters was the fact that one of the women claimed he threatened and abused her – the same claim she made when seeking a personal protection order against him that two other judges denied – showed up at a preliminary hearing and repeated her allegations, but offered no evidence. As a result, the judge increased his bond to $225,000, forcing Mr. Cartman to languish in jail for six months while awaiting trial. He lost his job and apartment, had to drop out of school, and forfeited all the money paid toward his semester in Morocco, which he never got to do.
With his resources exhausted and eager to get on with his life, he took a deal that involved pleading guilty to one felony count of larceny. Significantly, with the support of the prosecutor, the judge agreed to expunge his record if he successfully completed one year of probation. Having done that, Azairian is trying to move forward. After a time being homeless, Mr. Cartman is living with his grandmother in Chicago and working toward getting a license to drive semitrucks. The plan is to pay off his bills and student loans, and then return to college and finish getting his degree. With a felony on his record, becoming a policeman is no longer an option.
“This whole thing has literally affected every aspect of my life,” he says. “I’m willing to speak out about it, because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.”
Jessica Preston was eight months pregnant when she was arrested in Macomb County for driving with a suspended license in March 2016. It wasn’t her first run-in with the law, but it was her first driving-related offense.
That didn’t matter. She was given a choice: Spend 14 days in jail while waiting for a hearing date or come up with $10,000. Too poor to make bail, she was put behind bars. Five days after being jailed, what was already considered a high-risk pregnancy became infinitely riskier when she went into labor while locked behind bars. Ignoring her repeated claims that she was going into labor, jail personnel refused to call an ambulance, until it was too late to move her. Instead, she was forced to give birth on a mat placed on what’s been described as a “filthy” jail house floor.
Mother and child survived the ordeal. But the trauma remains, prompting lawyers for Ms. Preston to file a federal civil rights lawsuit on her behalf, claiming her constitutional right to humane treatment was violated.
A longtime addict prior to her child’s delivery, Ms. Preston had a history of drug arrests and outstanding warrants for failure to appear in court. If she were rich, Ms. Preston would have been allowed to purchase her freedom while awaiting trial. But because she’s poor, her life was put at risk and her son has the Macomb County Jail listed as the place of his birth on his birth certificate.
Speaking to a reporter about the horror she experienced, and her reason for speaking out, Ms. Preston has said, “I would never want it happening to anyone ever again."
Noting the need to reform Michigan’s bail system, Ms. Preston’s attorney, Harold Perakis of the firm Ihrie O'Brien, equates his client’s situation to that of people previously sentenced to jail terms in Macomb County and other parts of the state because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines imposed after being convicted of minor crimes. Calling what’s known as “pay or stay” policies unconstitutional, the ACLU of Michigan previously filed a lawsuit intended to halt that practice.
Keeping poor people accused of minor, non-violent offences locked up because they can’t afford bail is really no different, says Mr. Perakis. “The same concept that makes ‘pay or stay’ policies unconstitutional should also apply to bond issues. Everyone needs to have their right to due process protected.”
Richard J. Griffin knows firsthand how quickly even just a few days in jail can throw a person’s life into a downward spiral.
In February, Mr. Griffin, 27, was arrested for having a handgun in his car after being pulled over by Detroit police outside what he later learned was a drug house. Mr. Griffin says he's not a user. Instead, he was there as a favor, picking up someone he knew in need of a ride. The cops checked his license and found an outstanding warrant for an unpaid $63 traffic ticket that Mr. Griffin mistakenly thought had been paid years ago. ought had been paid off. Taking those two factors into account, his bail was set at $850 – even though, other than traffic violations, he had no criminal history. During his video arraignment, he was instructed by guards at the jail to not ask questions of the magistrate. No attorney was available to explain his rights or argue on his behalf.
“Essentially,” Mr. Griffin explains, “they were just trying to move people through the process as fast as possible.”
His mother, fiancée and fiancée’s mother were able to pool resources and come up with the money, but he had to sit in jail for two days while the whole process ran its course.
Those few days, as is the case for many people being held in pre-trial detention, proved to be critical.
Out of work since November 2018, Mr. Griffin had finally landed a new job as a customer service representative for a rental business. He was supposed to begin work the day following his arrest. Without access to a phone -- the police had seized it as evidence, and he still does not have it back -- he was unable to call his new employer and explain why he was a no-show his first day on the job.
Not surprisingly, the job was no longer there when he was released.
Because he was unemployed for so long, Mr. Griffin had fallen behind on his rent. To keep from losing his apartment, he had scheduled an appointment with a social service agency that provides emergency assistance. Instead of showing up for the meeting, he was sitting in jail. As a result, no aid was obtained, resulting in his eviction. He’s now living at the home of his fiancée’s mother.
Despite having his life start heading downhill so quickly, Mr. Griffin says he feels relatively lucky. Even a few days of sleeping on a thin mat thrown on a cold cement down on the floor and being given food that’s barely edible can be an unnerving experience. He’s thankful to have had someone to reach out to in a time of great need.
“I had people close to me who were willing to come up with the money and bail me out,” he explains. “But when I was in jail, I saw people all around me who didn’t have anyone they could turn to. So, they had to stay locked up.”
The way he sees it, the current system is highly punitive, even for those who’ve done nothing wrong.
“This was really an eye-opening experience,” says Mr. Griffin. “Instead of treating people as if they are innocent, you are automatically treated like you are guilty. If you have the money to pay what they are asking for, you get to go free. But if you can’t pay, then you can’t go free. How is that fair?”
Daisy Benavides is a criminal defense attorney based in Grand Rapids. This is what she has to say about the current bail system and how it negatively affects her ability to represent her clients:
“Mounting a vigorous defense is much more difficult when a client is unable to get out on bail and has to sit in jail awaiting trial. Access is restricted to a limited number of hours, lack of privacy is a concern, and, in cases with voluminous files, making sure all the necessary documents are on hand is a challenge. Whether a defendant has easy access to the proper clothes, and how they appear in general, also makes a difference in terms of how they are perceived by a jury. So, in that respect, someone is much better off if they are able to come to court from home rather than coming from a cell escorted by sheriff deputies.”
“Beyond that, people who are able to remain free while awaiting trial can continue working, making sure they can support their families, keep their housing and transportation, and pay for their legal defense.”
“Finally, I have seen how people forced to sit in jail for months at a time because they can’t afford bail can be coerced into accepting a plea deal, even if they are not guilty of the crime they are accused of committing, because they are so eager to get their freedom back they will admit guilt just to get out.”