We Can’t End Mass Incarceration Without Ending Money Bail

Whether or not you are in jail should not depend on your ability to pay for your freedom. Yet that’s the way our current money bail system works. It is one of the most corrupt and broken parts of our justice system.

Close to half a million people are in jail today awaiting trial, many of them incarcerated because they are too poor to afford cash bail. The time has come to abolish this system. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is launching a nationwide campaign today to end this injustice of wealth-based incarceration, deploying all of our tools from our nationwide state affiliate structure to our strategic litigation, communication, and legislative advocacy to support bail reform movements and our partners in states across the country.

The original purpose of bail was to serve as an incentive to return to court when a person is arrested, released, and their case proceeds. However, the current money bail system has little to do with this original intent. Rather it has mutated into a way to separate people who have money from those who don’t. People with money can almost always buy their way to freedom, regardless of the charges against them. Yet people without access to cash too often end up in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, or alternatively they must take out loans from bail companies that charge exorbitant fees.

Even though you are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, if you can’t afford cash bail, you will end up in jail for weeks, months, or, in some cases, years as you wait for your day in court. This wealth-based incarceration disproportionately punishes and targets Black people and other people of color as well as people from economically disadvantaged communities. Those trapped by this system often lose their families, jobs, and homes as they are denied justice while waiting for their case to move through the system.

They’re also more likely to be convicted of the crime they were charged with. One study showed that the non-felony conviction rate jumps from 50 percent to 92 percent for those jailed pretrial. For felony cases, the rate jumps from 59 percent to 85 percent. Whether you are detained before trial can very well predict whether you are eventually convicted, as people become desperate to leave jail and agree to plea deals. Prosecutors know how to work this system and take advantage of these desperate situations.

But prosecutors aren’t the only ones who benefit from this system. Multinational insurance corporations and for-profit bail bond companies make billions in profits, all on the backs of low-income people and disadvantaged communities. That’s because if you want to get out of jail and you cannot afford it, then you have to turn to one of these companies to secure your freedom. According to a recent report by Color of Change and the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, fewer than 10 companies are responsible for a significant majority of the $14 billion in bonds posted by for-profit bail each year. The industry collects around $2 billion a year in profits.

These companies require an upfront, nonrefundable fee—usually 10 percent—to pay for your bail. Yet often times families cannot afford this fee and end up paying through installment plans with high interest rates, trapping them in years of debt. So individuals with enough money to pay their entire bail upfront generally receive all of their money back when their case is resolved, but if a for-profit bondsman bailed you out — even if you never miss a day in court and are found not guilty — you and your family are still financially beholden, many times for years paying them back.

This is happening throughout the country. In Maryland, for example, the state’s Office of the Public Defender found that over a five-year period, “more than $75 million in bail bond premiums were charged in cases that were resolved without finding of any wrongdoing.” Overall, for-profit bond premiums cost families in the state more than $250 million over five years, and that does not include interest or other fees. When you take a deeper look, as we have, you’ll see that these predatory loan practices are often concentrated in the poorest communities and are disproportionately paid by Black people. We’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars drained from our most underserved communities into the hands of the bail bond industry and multinational corporations.

There’s a better way towards justice. Some states — like New Jersey — have already pursued important reforms that begin to overhaul the money bail system. They are putting an end to people being punished simply because they cannot afford money bail. They are changing the culture of the courts and making sure that judges make informed decisions for each individual they see and exhaust all other alternatives before ever resorting to money bail.

And these reforms are beginning to work. Since New Jersey’s bail reform law took effect on January 1, 2017, the daily population in the state’s jails has dropped 17.2 percent and cash bail has been imposed only 33 times out of 33,400 defendants. New Jersey’s example demonstrates that we can fix this predatory system without inhibiting our justice system’s ability to fulfill its obligations. Incarceration rates are dropping where reforms have been implemented, and communities are better off for it.

Money shouldn’t determine someone’s freedom from incarceration. Big business must not be the gatekeeper that decides who is released from jail before trial. Profits must be removed from playing any role in deciding whether a person is free or in jail.

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Anonymous

My guy was locked up for a year, for buying alcohol to minors, honest mistake very nice guy non violent only if provoked obviously , but yes these cases do exist , had to sit around hardened criminals because he was to poor to bail out, being that his immediate family wasnt around and his foster family was very poor. In my experience , the bb men in the jail are starving to help you so that they get paid, its never to really help, so in turn they work with local enforcement and courts to ensure the money cycle Flows in, may it be unintentional , it still like the article says certainly cripple the lower classes

Anonymous

^^^
Instead of buying alcohol for minors maybe he should’ve saved that money just in case he was busted for breaking the law. So, it’s the taxpayers responsibility to secure his release when he screwed up? Why don’t you get a job and bond him out? Surely, your two families can pull enough money together to bail him out. Oh wait, probably all live off of the government already.

Lynda Harris

People of color r always being fine high Bond . know at most people of color can't pay this high fine. The system sat up to hold black people in jail to make money.the 14 AMENDMENT SAID DUE PROCESS OF THE LAW NOR DENY TO ANY PERSON. EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS. THIS LAWS SHOULD GO TO THE SUPREME COURT. MAKING IT LAWS OVER THE LANDS.

Anonymous

You should know by now that laws only benefit the 1%!!!! Created by the 1%, to benefit the 1%, that's the way it's been since 1776!!!

Life in Amerika, the Land of the Greed, and Home of the Enslaved!!!

Anonymous

Wow, thank you for the information.

Anonymous

Bail agents are in the business of de-incarceration...how in the world is getting rid of them going to get more people out of jail.

The ACLU needs to open its eyes and realize that they are on the wrong side of this argument. They are proposing a two pronged system. Free release on your own recognizance (with some kind of condition based on risk) or detention if you are deemed dangerous. BTW, this is the same model as the federal system. What the ACLU doesnt realize is that without the use of bail agents the two options slowly become one option....detention. Over time people who are released for free will violate. Based on those violations they will no longer be offered release and instead can only be offered the second option...detention. Why do you think the federal system detains almost 70% of defendants. If you are being held in jail and not being offered a release mechanism such as bail, the system is truly violating your civil liberties and your constitutional right to bail. I was under the impression that was the mission of the ACLU, to protect people from having their civil liberties taken away from them. Maybe it is time the ACLU stop supporting criminal justice reform programs that incarcerate more people and start supporting criminal justice programs like the commercial bail industry that focus on ensuring people have a right to be released and a way to get home to their love ones.

The only way bail agents make money is by releasing defendants. The ACLU should want more bail, not less.

Hailey

Soon after My husband and I had our son he was arrested for failure to pay fines claiming we owed a staggaring 15 bucks On a speeding ticket hed gotten the year before, which had been paid the week before as I tried to tell the officer after I dug out the reciept. They said they still had to serve the warrant and since I couldn't drive because of pain pills post cesarean our truck was impounded. they had suspended his license when they issued the warrant so he was charged with driving on suspensed on top of that. We had just moved so our finances were 130$. The fee bail bondsman charge here is 10.% but they charge 150$ minimum. With a bondsman it woulda been 245$ to get my husband out so he could continue to work amd support us until we could prove in court we had in fact paid. Unfortunately I didn't have enough plus our truck was 65 a day so I got the truck out of impound and tried to find work. He ended up spending a month or so in jail, I was investigated by cps because our landlord evicted us when I didnt find a job quick enough for the rent and wound up homeless. And the only reason he wasn't in there longer is because he plead guilty knowing how much I needed him workinf and it was literally the only way out at that point.

The conditions of bond and bail being applied with no consideration of individual economic ability truly creates undo hardships that can destroy lives. Befor this happened we had just climbed up from needing snapassistance to being financially indelendant. Now its 4 years later and we are still struggling to pull ourselves out after 3,000$ in fines and both o us working full-time opposite shifts because daycare is unrealistic. One step at a time. This issue needs to be unserstood And hopefully community service will become more popular than fines that kill working folks on hard times.

Anonymous

In the Amerikan Just-Us (as in Just-Us millionaires and billionaires get away with everything) system, you're GUILTY unless you can afford the $10K for a REAL lawyer instead of some "wet behind the ears" public pretender ( from my experience, a senior at the local law school) Ain't Amerika GREAT????

Anonymous

You are talking pretrial watch! Worse than bail! Guilty until proven innocent completely denying fifth Advent!

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