Ending the menace of money bail

The American ‘justice system’ is a scandal, laying a heavy hand on the poor and otherwise marginalized communities while allowing the big criminals who create misery on a massive scale to walk free. I have written many times about one of the abuses and that is the bail system that is used punitively, setting bail amounts that defendants clearly cannot afford. This harshly and adversely affects poor people who often languish in jail for long times for even minor offenses even before their trials, simply because they cannot come up with the money to make bail. Spending time in jail, apart from being a traumatic experience for most people, often leads to a whole sequence of other adverse effects such as losing jobs, being evicted from one’s home, and losing custody of their children. All because they do not have a few hundred dollars in cash readily available.

Aida Chavez writes that Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to end this practice.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt., on Wednesday introduced legislation to end money bail on the federal level and create incentives for states to follow suit.

The No Money Bail Act is the latest example of the push from the left to tackle criminal justice reform. It would prohibit money bail in federal criminal cases, provide grants to states that wish to implement alternate pretrial systems, and withhold grant funding from states that continue using cash bail systems.

In a statement accompanying the release of his bill, Sanders said, “Poverty is not a crime and hundreds of thousands of Americans, convicted of nothing, should not be in jail today because they cannot afford cash bail. In the year 2018, in the United States, we should not continue having a ‘debtor prison’ system. Our destructive and unjust cash bail process is part of our broken criminal justice system – and must be ended.”

The summary of the bill issued by Sanders’s’ office powerfully explains why the bill is necessary and what it will do.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which is bad enough on its own. But what’s even worse is nearly a quarter of all people incarcerated on any given day in the U.S. are “unconvicted”—meaning they are sitting in jail waiting for a trial, or plea bargain, or some sort of conclusion to their case.

Study after study has shown the average American could not come up with $400 in an emergency, and people in prison tend to start out poorer than most Americans, with average earnings of less than $20,000 annually prior to incarceration. If you are making that little, chances are you do not have a spare $1,000 set aside in case of emergency, and you will have no choice but to sit in jail awaiting your trial—or more likely, your plea deal.

Pretrial detention is bad for society and bad for our criminal justice system. People held pretrial are missing days of work. They are missing time with their families. Often enough, they run the risk of missing a rent payment and losing their housing. Studies have shown people are more likely to take a plea bargain just to end their pretrial detention that much sooner.

Meanwhile, the U.S. spends nearly $14 billion each year locking people up without a conviction. It’s clear the system is a poor use of resources—in 2015, the city of New Orleans collected $4.5 million in bail, fines, and fees, but spent $6.4 million detaining people who couldn’t afford to pay their bail, fine, or fee. And as with so many other aspects of our society, for-profit companies are making a fortune off poor defendants. The for-profit bail industry makes between $1.4 and $2.4 billion each year—the United States is one of only two countries in the world that even allows for-profit bond companies.

It has always been clear that we have separate criminal justice systems in this country for the poor and for the rich. A wealthy person charged with a serious crime may get an ankle monitor and told not to leave the country; a poor person charged with a misdemeanor may sit in a jail cell. And this disproportionately affects minorities—fifty percent of all pretrial detainees are Black or Latinx.

Pretrial detention should be based on whether or not someone truly should not be freed before their trial. It should not depend on how much money they have, or what kind of mood the judge is in on a given day, or even what judge the case happens to come before.

This is going to be tough to pass because the US prison industry and some local jurisdictions make a lot of money from jailing or threatening to jail poor people.

You have got to hand it to Sanders. Not for him the tiny incremental steps favored by the corporate Democrats who dominate the party establishment and are always fearful of doing anything that might upset their big money donors. Sanders urges sweeping changes (such as single-payer, Medicare For All health insurance and free college tuition) that are initially greeted with scorn from the party ‘centrists’ as being Utopian before they grudgingly begin to sign on when the they see how popular those ideas are.

This is how you change the debate in the country in a more progressive direction, by taking bold stands on issues that meet real needs and thus resonate with people.


  1. mnb0 says

    Sanders is not really a Democrat of course -- he joined because it was the optimal way to campaign for his candidacy. All the more reason to support him, even if in my eyes he’s very, very moderate.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 mnb0
    By US standards Sanders one or two mm to the right of Kropotkin.

    Come to think of it, Bismark would have been a raving socialist to the current Repubs.

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