Editor’s note: In conjunction with OSI-Baltimore’s upcoming forum series, The Burden of Bail, Audacious Ideas is pleased to feature a month-long blog series about pre-trial detention and bail reform. Over the next month, four experts will talk about what can be done to make our pre-trial justice system fair and efficient.
I remember when my elementary school teacher explained the US system of justice to us during Civics class. “Justice is blind,” she said, “everyone gets treated the same, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.” Yet as you read this, more people are held in jail in America simply because they cannot afford to pay their bond set by the court than for any other reason! That’s right, the “presumed innocent” defendant in jail outnumbers convicted prisoner by a margin approaching 2 to 1. How can this happen? It is the result of our pretrial justice system that releases those who can pay regardless of their potential danger to community or their likelihood to flee. Conversely, our current system keeps even the safest defendant in an expensive jail cell if they can’t come up with the cash to buy their way out. Ironically, many of those held awaiting trial for weeks or even months will ultimately see their charges dismissed or will be sentenced to probation or other sanctions that do not include incarceration.
Why do we continue to support such an irrational approach to justice? Does posting money make the career criminal less dangerous or violent? Does the lack of financial resources make the low-risk defendant an unmanageable threat to our safety? Obviously the answer is no in both cases. Then what do we actually get with a money-based pretrial release system? We get jails full of defendants who cannot afford bail, while those who have ready access to money—regardless of how they came to acquire it—gain their release. To make matters even worse, studies have shown over the past several decades that those who are held in jail pending trial routinely receive higher rates of conviction and harsher sentences than they would if they had been able to secure their release.
The Pretrial Justice Institute works to establish safe, fair and effective approaches to pretrial justice. We advocate for release pending trial based upon risk rather than cash. We advocate for the attainable ideals embodied in my Civics lesson those many years ago. Join us.