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Karen Padilla was a 25-year-old Chicago mom-to-be when she was arrested in June during a traffic stop. The officer who pulled her over for having a broken headlight noticed a warrant against her for a nonviolent violation of parole, which she was serving for an (also nonviolent) retail theft two years ago.


Padilla was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, posed no threat to her community and had “no real criminal history to speak of,” according Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.

Despite all that, Padilla was thrown in jail to await a court date two months down the line. She was denied bail, a decision the judge made when she had no defense attorney present with her in court. Her protests that her pregnancy would come to term before her court date fell on deaf ears.

RELATED: Why does the government want to keep elderly, nonviolent prisoners locked up on the taxpayer’s dime?

Here’s a photo from a local news report that shows where Padilla was expected to finish out her pregnancy:

Can you imagine?

Worse yet, after delivery, Padilla would have had to stay in jail until the court date while her newborn was taken away from her, which many studies show risks trauma and even lifelong mental health consequences for the baby.

Needless to say, this was a stressful situation, something Padilla believes contributed to the fact that her baby was born a month premature. She was taken to a hospital for the delivery, and that’s when her case finally came to the attention to the county sheriff’s department and state attorney’s office, which worked together to get Padilla and her baby released on bond.

In this case, it turns out the judge who jailed Padilla was in apparent violation of multiple laws governing how bail bond hearings are supposed to work in Cook County. But even if the judge had done everything legally, this story is a good example why bail reform is so needed.

After all, why should a pregnant woman who doesn’t have any record of violent crime have to deal with bail at all?

Think about it: What’s the worst that could plausibly have happened were Padilla released without posting bond? Again, there’s no history of violence. She’s seven-and-a-half months pregnant. The fact that her traffic violation happened in Chicago suggests she had no intention of fleeing parole.

Why should someone like Padilla be jailed or have to pay to stay out of jail? And why should taxpayers be on the hook to pay for her to be in jail if she can’t make or isn’t offered bail? It makes no sense.

Looking beyond this particular case, bail is overused in the U.S. criminal justice system. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sitting in jail right now, because they can’t pay to get out.

“Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)  explained in a recent op-ed written with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to promote their bail reform agenda.

“The Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia in 1983 that the Constitution prohibits ‘punishing a person for his poverty,’” the senators continued, “but that’s exactly what this system does. Nine out of 10 defendants who are detained cannot afford to post bail, which can exceed $20,000 even for minor crimes like stealing $105 in clothing.”

It is no exaggeration to say pretrial detention — whether because bail is unaffordable, inaccessible or, as in Padilla’s case, simply never offered — can ruin people’s lives. Nathan Tempey at Gothamist notes that it dramatically interrupts “people’s ability to work, pay rent and take care of their families, and [it] drastically increases the chances that one will be found guilty of a crime.”

RELATED: How the overcriminalization of everything is endangering ordinary people

This destructive dynamic affects people who are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused, and it affects people, like Padilla, who have been found guilty of nonviolent offenses. It also makes the innocent more likely to plead guilty, as a plea deal that gets you home to your family starts to look pretty good from the inside of a jail cell, despite its long-lasting consequences for gainful employment and housing access.

“I think we can never forget that real people’s lives are impacted by the decisions that the system makes,” said Smith in reference to Padilla’s ordeal. “It should be about justice and doing what’s right for someone based on the facts and circumstances of their case,” she added, but often that’s not what happens.

For Padilla, her baby and far too many people like them, we have to do better.

A Chicago mom’s outrageous story shows why America needs bail reform so badly AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at www.bonniekristian.com or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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