An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison sits on his bunk bed in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2007. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There are many injustices in our nation’s criminal-justice system. But one of the greatest injustices occurs before the accused are even convicted of a crime. It’s the application of our money-bail system, and it works like this: Let’s say a mother is accused of shoplifting at a department store and is arrested. A judge sets bail at $20,000, which she doesn’t have. So her family goes to a bail bondsman, who say they’ll put up $20,000 if the family gives the bondsman 10 percent, or $2,000.

But of course, most working people don’t have that kind of money sitting around. So this woman has three choices: She can sell or pawn possessions to get the money. She can sit in jail until her court date—which, because of the backlog in our courts, can take weeks, months or possibly years—and potentially lose her job, her home or custody of her children if they’re left unsupervised. Or she can plead guilty and have a criminal record that will make it hard to find work in the future.

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More than 450,000 Americans currently sit in jail while they await trial—many of whom are there only because they don’t have the money to pay to get out. Many are there for nonviolent offenses. None of them have yet been convicted of a crime.

This is not only an issue of criminal justice; it’s also about economic justice. In a system where justice is supposed to be blind, is it not a serious injustice that—for the same offense—someone who can pay gets out, but someone who can’t pay sits behind bars with all the consequences that brings? The fate of a person who has not been convicted of any crime shouldn’t be forced to play out like a Monopoly game.

That’s why Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and I recently introduced a bill that would accelerate progress and encourage states to replace their bail systems. It’s called the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act (pdf), and it would accomplish three key objectives.

First, our legislation empowers states to build on best practices. Because each state is different, instead of the federal government mandating a one-size-fits-all approach, this bill provides resources directly to states so that they can pioneer and implement the most effective policies tailored to their needs.

Second, our bill holds states accountable. Any state receiving support must report on its progress and analyze data and trends to ensure that reforms like risk assessments are not discriminatory.

Finally, this bill encourages better data collection. Data on the pretrial process is notoriously poor. By improving it, we can help ensure that reforms yield better outcomes—for defendants, families and taxpayers. In fact, the Pretrial Justice Institute estimates that bail reform could save American taxpayers roughly $78 billion a year (pdf).

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As a career prosecutor, I’m especially concerned that our broken money bail system can also threaten public safety. In one study (pdf), nearly half the defendants considered “high-risk” or dangerous were released, simply because they could afford bail. Most of the transnational criminal organizations I’ve dealt with have a lot of money. Their members can easily pay bail and walk out of jail. Meanwhile, defendants who don’t pose a risk but cannot afford bail sit in jail. That doesn’t make us safer.

Not to mention that money bail disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. Nine out of 10 defendants who are detained cannot afford to post bail. Black defendants are more likely than similarly situated white defendants to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail. In fact, black men pay 35 percent higher bail amounts than white men (pdf).

That’s not fair. That doesn’t keep us safe. And we must be smarter.

Instead of keeping people in jail because they don’t have money, we would run them through what’s called a personalized risk-assessment system, which is a much better measure and indicator of whether someone is a flight risk or a threat to his or her community. In order to do risk assessment correctly, we must acknowledge that people of color are more likely to be arrested. So evaluating risk assessment using only prior arrests would continue to disproportionately impact communities of color. Which is why, instead of analyzing prior arrests, we should look at factors like prior convictions. And we must work to ensure that these systems are as neutral as possible.

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If a mother is arrested, the court would review that mother’s information, and if the woman poses little risk, she could go home until her court date.

If not risk assessment, then we must consider another innovative alternative to money bail. Instead of keeping that mother in jail to make sure she appears in court, what if we just called or texted her to remind her about her court date? Studies show (pdf) that even a simple phone reminder can be very effective to get people to appear at trial. In Multnomah County, Ore., automated-phone-call reminders resulted in a 31 percent decrease (pdf) in defendants failing to appear in court.

States all across the country—from Colorado to Kentucky and New Jersey to West Virginia—have pioneered these types of innovative bail reforms. They know that this isn’t only a bipartisan issue; it’s a nonpartisan issue. It’s just common sense.

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The time has come to remedy the injustice of our bail system. Because whether someone is detained before trial should be determined by whether or not he or she is a risk—not whether he or she is rich.


Sen. Kamala D. Harris is the junior senator from California.

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