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ACLU of Nebraska to monitor judges, prosecutors in court accountability effort starting in Lancaster County
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ACLU of Nebraska to monitor judges, prosecutors in court accountability effort starting in Lancaster County

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ACLU of Nebraska

Danielle Conrad and others from ACLU of Nebraska announce an initiative Thursday on court accountability.

Volunteers and law clerks with the ACLU of Nebraska will monitor courtrooms across the state over the next two years to ensure judges consider defendants' ability to pay cash bail, fines or fees — factors required to be evaluated under state law. 

The ACLU on Thursday announced the initiative that will hold under a microscope county judges who "set cash bail or impose fines or fees during hearings that typically last no more than 5 minutes," the organization said in a news release. The program will launch in Lancaster County. 

Nebraska law requires judges to give individual consideration of each person's ability to post bail or pay fees, but according to the ACLU, some judges and prosecutors don't "meaningfully assess" each person's financial reality. 

These oversights can leave people in jail only because they can't afford to post bail or pay fines, a circumstance that leads to what the organization called "debtors' prisons." 

“Freedom should not depend on how much money you have,” ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Adam Sipple said in the release.

“When someone’s ability to pay isn’t appropriately assessed or meaningfully considered, cash bail effectively creates a two-tiered system of justice where people who can afford their release go home while others unnecessarily suffer in jail." 

Similar efforts led by other ACLU chapters have led to class-action lawsuits, including one filed by the organization's Michigan arm against the 36th District Court in Detroit. The organization called the court's processes an "unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against poor people." 

But Sipple said the ACLU of Nebraska is hoping to avoid litigation and instead hopes the initiative leads to buy-in from everyone involved in the state's judicial system, including judges and prosecutors. 

According to census data, about 4% of Lancaster County residents are Black. As of May 26, roughly 34% of people in the county jail’s pretrial population were Black, according to the release. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or awegley@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @andrewwegley. 

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