The Cost of Imprisoning America's Poor


That's the number of people imprisoned in America's jails "on any given day," according to the Vera Institute of Justice's new report on America's swollen jail system. While too little attention has been paid to the size and deplorable conditions of our prisons, even less light has been cast on the ills of our nation's jails.

Stuck in jail and awaiting trial, the Vera report provides a sharp reminder that thousands of Americans – disproportionately people of color – are lost in the criminal justice maze without much hope of escape.

In theory, jails are meant to house narrow categories of arrestees: those considered too dangerous to release, those determined to be flight risks, and those serving a short sentence. (Though commonly conflated, prisons are different from jails in that they almost exclusively house people serving sentences of over one year.) Yet according to the report, 75 percent of people in jail are detained for nonviolent misdemeanors, namely small-scale drug possession, petty theft, or minor property damage. These are hardly the people we need to keep locked up.

Defenders of the status quo might think that the majority of our jail population is made up of people who have already been convicted. But that isn't the case either. In fact, 62 percent of people in jail have not yet been proven guilty. So if they're not dangerous, and they're presumed innocent, why are they languishing in a jail cell?

Too often, the answer is directly related to poverty, not public safety.

Insurmountable financial obstacles are key contributors to the rise in jail populations. For one, low-income defendants are often trapped by their inability to afford bail. Bail should not be used to punish people, and incarcerating people solely because they cannot pay for their release violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

Bail's primary purpose is to ensure that the accused appear in court, but bail figures often wildly surpass the amount needed to accomplish that goal. The Vera report notes that in New York City in 2013, "more than 50% of jail inmates held until case disposition remained in jail because they could not afford bail of $2,500 or less. Most of these were misdemeanor cases."

Furthermore, the average bail amount for felony defendants jumped 43 percent from 1992 to 2009, despite the absence of empirical evidence supporting the need for higher bail. What's worse, bail amounts are not necessarily set in relation to an individual's ability to pay; rather, they are often arbitrary and even, at times, unconstitutionally determined only by a fixed bail schedule.

Beyond bail, unfair fees and fines – and the rising trend of "offender-funded" justice – act as another set of bars keeping defendants locked up. A rash of state and local governments have responded to budget squeezes by forcing the costs of courts and jails onto defendants, charging them for services like room and board in jail, medical care, and even the use of a public defender. (These practices imitate those of private probation, detention, and bail bonds companies.) The people accused of crimes in state and local courts are often the people for whom these costs impose the greatest financial hardship.

Indeed, for many, poverty is at the root of their involvement in the criminal justice system in the first place, as shown in the Vera report, a recent ACLU lawsuit in Georgia, and elsewhere. As a result, an inability to pay these fees and fines needlessly keeps poor defendants in jail — or sends them back — while their richer counterparts walk free because they can afford proper representation. Adding to these injustices, as with so many criminal justice, economic, and social policies, the myriad problems with our jail system disproportionately harm communities of color.

The Vera report is chock full of local success stories and practical recommendations, from simply making fewer arrests to establishing pretrial diversion programs to reforming the burdensome monetary obligations discussed above. In addition, we can help reduce jail populations by strengthening indigent defense systems to ensure that anyone facing deprivation of their liberty is promptly afforded appointed counsel that can help them obtain release. The loss of human capital as a result of our current system is too costly for America to bear – these people have the potential to be activists, educators, and parents. We should harness that potential rather than quashing it.

Most people in jail aren't dangerous, and they can be expected to show up to court. Yet every day tens of thousands of people – presumed innocent – are being incarcerated unnecessarily and unfairly while awaiting resolution of their case. With the right reforms, we save money, reduce the enormous harm caused by unwarranted detention, and lower our jail populations, allowing many of the 731,000 people waiting in jail right now to return to their homes and families.

Learn more about overincarceration and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (4)
Read the Terms of Use


This was a great article. This looks like a concrete, well-defined project for the ACLU to take on.

I wonder if the article might be even better if it made the connection that the people of color referred to, and in general, the people who are stuck in this system, are there in no small part because of their economic background. The crimes that were committed, or the circumstances involving the alleged crimes, are directly related to their economic class. If this fact is true, then it might be worth working into the story.

We all understand that it is a bad experience to be in a jail or prison. I wonder though if more can be done in the article to articulate the additional problems with being locked up. For instance, you can't work, you can't care for your family, and a million other things. I wonder if a small paragraph on this might make the article stronger. I think most people can relate to the desperation of needing to do something, but not being able to do it, and staring down time somewhere knowing that these things are just beyond your reach.


As your article states, bail is supposed to be merely an insurance policy to guarantee the court appearance of the individual. In reality, its purpose has been distorted into another way to nickel and dime jail inmates and their families in addition to the various “fees” offenders might pay during their stay. This system is unjust. It is unjust and only sheds a garish light on the fact that the prison system does not know how to survive without its cushiony budget. When it gets down to it, jails and prisons are business entities, like everything else in America. Unlike their corporate counterparts, they do not know how to adjust when supply decreases. They are in denial as to the amount of resources they need and it is America’s poor that are taking the hit for their poor decision-making.


I was arrested and jailed in two different Texas jails because I was too poor to pay warrants on minor traffic offenses. I was not appointed an attorney. I was told "either agree to a guilty or no contest" or you will 'sit in jail' for days. I had contacted the court numerous times when I received my violations and asked about community service or what other options might be available to help me, an indigent person, take care of the fines. I was even told that under no circumstances could I have a payment plan unless I brought a certain amount of money as down payment to the judge. I had no money at that time. At no point and time, during numerous phone calls, was I informed that I could request an indigent hearing. I didn't know about this hearing. When I asked the court staff why I wasn't informed the hearing was even an option, I was told by the court staff that I should have 'contacted an attorney'. I couldn't afford an attorney and I don't understand why the court staff couldn't have mentioned this. This was my first arrest. Now I have a permanent arrest record. I was not offered any way to clear my record after these arrests either, whether by deferred adjudication or some other means. I am livid over this. Absolutely livid. How can a court hold you without representation by an attorney? I was told that in Texas for arrests for minor traffic offenses and fines the courts do not have to appoint an attorney. Isn't this deprivation of liberty? How can they say we can hold you for several days but not appoint you an attorney but they are doing just that.

And in Dallas County Jails there are thousands each year imprisoned for non payment of fines. Many of whom are indigent. The courts never ever mention that they can request a hearing. Ever. I wonder why courts intentionally refuse to tell people about this option. It should be mandatory. The court staff will tell you about every thing else BUT the hearing option to see if you are indigent.

I'm losing faith in equality in this country. I hope the ACLU will continue to fight the good fight because we need more organizations like this. Unchecked Power and Authority can quickly become dangerous.


I had the same problem in Georgia before the law suit and offered the money in full after I had been hiding from probation because I had no money. They turned me down and said I had to turn myself into the jail. All this for less than 500.00.I had a lawyer and my husband was in an accident and I had to cate for him 24 hours a day for the rest of my life. They wanted me in jail. Well I waited and that law suit came up and all charges and fines were dropped. That's what they get.

Stay Informed