Written by attorney Jeremy S Geigle

How Many People Are in Jail Simply Because They Can’t Afford Their Bail?

Some shocking statistics about the United States criminal justice system reveal that 2/3 of offenders who are jailed continue to stay behind bars for extended periods of time, simply because they cannot afford bail. On any given day in this country, 750,000 people sit in jail cells, and two-thirds of them haven’t even been convicted of a crime. According to Timothy Murray of the Pretrial Justice Institute, 95% of those booked into jail in 2010-2011 were not sent to prison afterwards, and 75% of felony defendants who are sentenced to jail will be given probation, sent to rehabilitation programs, or be judged innocent.

Not only does pretrial incarceration waste taxpayer money, which costs the city of New Orleans approximately $10 million every year, it can also have detrimental consequences for the defendants. One such woman, a fast-food worker, wasn’t able to reach her landlord as she sat behind bars; she was released only to find that she had been evicted and has lost all of her belongings. Similarly, a dishwasher lost his job sitting in jail waiting for his trial, simply for being stopped on a traffic-ticket violation. Finally, an 18-year-old high school student was jailed for 51 days after stealing her neighbor’s iPhone because her family couldn’t afford her $200 bail.

In New Orleans, as in many cities, a judge can place a bail amount but allow an offender to be released if a trusted person pledges to pay the bond if the offender doesn’t return to court, known as a personal surety. But in most cases, there is an administrative fee with surety bonds; in New Orleans, the fee is $200. If the offender or their family cannot pay the fee, even a personal surety isn’t enough to release them.

An associate professor at Brigham Young University Law School, Shima Baradaran explains that while “some inmates are held because they pose a danger to others…that’s the exception, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of people in our nation’s jails are not a threat to society." Of all of those incarcerated in U.S. jails, 75% committed nonviolent crimes such as drug possession, property damage, or other petty offenses. Along with Frank McIntyre, a Rutgers Business School economist, Baradaran determined that crime would not increase if 25% more prisoners were released without any added supervision.

This crisis continues to affect millions of low-income Americans every day, in addition to the taxpayers who contribute to the millions of dollars that large cities pay to incarcerate those who have committed both serious and petty offenses. Though some courts have implemented pre-trial programs that allow defendants to return to court without incident, the system for setting bail hasn’t seen the change our country needs. In 1990, judges set bond in 53% of all felony cases; that number rose to 70% by 2006.

Will the bail system change in Arizona anytime soon? While the state legislation has not announced any plans for reform, it is reasonable to believe that this issue will be resolved nationally in coming decades.

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