The flagrant abuse of the bail system

I have railed about the injustices perpetrated by the bail system in the US that allows wealthy and well-connected people to stay out of jail even when they have committed serious crimes, while poor people who have committed minor crimes or even no crimes at all and do not have the resources to flee are set bail amounts that they cannot afford and thus are jailed. Peter Maass says that the recent cases of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein and political influence peddler Paul Manafort are good examples of the differential treatment that is meted out to the rich and poor. (Crip Dyke has already discussed how badly accused whistleblower Reality Winner is being treated.)

In the case of Weinstein, this is the timeline of his arraignment:

7:30am: He turns himself in to authorities
9:30am: He appears before the judge with the pre-arranged bail check ready
10:00am: He is free to go home.

Remember that this is for a man who has been accused on rape and multiple other sexual abuses. Contrast this with the very next case of a man charged with not paying a $195 fine for the possession of marijuana. He had been in jail since his arrest the previous night, with no option of turning himself in the following day.

Defense lawyer Matthew Daloisio says that this unequal treatment is routine.

Daloisio, in a phone interview, noted that most of the usually poor clients he represents receive no special consideration or even the time to argue for it. Cases in New York courts are handled in an assembly-line fashion, often with public defenders rushing to meet their clients to figure out what’s going on. They tend to be in front of a judge and prosecutor for less than five minutes before their bail requests are decided — compared with the apparently extensive negotiations that lawyers for Manafort and Weinstein conducted before their clients had their pre-trial fates delivered.

“That’s the model, that should be the model,” said Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, which provides legal services to people who can’t afford a lawyer. “But the process afforded to the privileged is not afforded to the majority of people who are arrested. It’s not that I and other public defenders oppose the fact the Manafort and Weinstein and [Bill] Cosby are at liberty. It’s that the process available to them is never available to our clients.”

ONE OF THE inequities of the system is highlighted by Weinstein’s case. His net worth has been estimated at more than $200 million, which means $1 million in bail represents 0.5 percent of his assets — spare change. On the other hand, for the unlucky army of poor and working poor who enter the court system, bail of $10,000 or $1,000 is more than they possess. According to a 2016 survey by the Federal Reserve, about 46 percent of Americans do not have enough money for a $400 emergency expense.

“The injustices are not among the people who are multi-millionaires,” noted David Feige, board chair of the Bronx Freedom Fund, which pays bail for people accused of misdemeanors in the Bronx. “The injustices are among the people who are accused of shoplifting $5 in Advil and are sitting in Rikers Island because they couldn’t make bail. It could be $500.”

For these people, the ordeal of being behind bars is not the only dreadful consequence of the money bail system. It means they could lose their job if, for instance, they work in a service industry position for which an absence of more than a day can be grounds for dismissal. They could also lose their housing if they can’t make the next month’s rent because they are not working. When they get out, they could be homeless as well as jobless.

The ostensible purpose of bail is to ensure that people turn up for their arraignment and trial and do not flee. But that is not how it is used on poor people. Setting bail that they obviously cannot pay is a ploy that is deliberately used to coerce them to plead guilty and hence we should not be surprised that “90 percent of people who are held in jail on bail will plead guilty just to go home, even if they didn’t commit the crime.”

The abuse of the bail system in the US is a major scandal in a legal system that is already a disgrace.

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