In her first major piece of legislation since taking office, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), along with everyone’s favorite Republican, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has introduced a bipartisan bail-reform bill—the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017—which would encourage states to stop holding accused offenders in jail who can’t pay bail for their release.
As it stands, individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial are forced to remain in jail if they cannot afford to pay for their freedom. Bail amounts set across state and local governments continue to be decided arbitrarily. Those random preset bail amounts do not necessarily take into consideration whether the accused is a first-time offender or whether that person has the ability to pay. Nor do they always factor in the person’s danger to the public or risk of not showing up at trial.
“Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally,” said Harris in a press release announcing the proposed bill. “Yet more than 450,000 Americans sit in jail today awaiting trial and many of them cannot afford ‘money bail.’ In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not—and that’s wrong. We must come together to reform a bail system that is discriminatory, wasteful, and fails to keep our communities safe.”
Studies have shown that excessive bail amounts disproportionately affect communities of color. African-American and Hispanic defendants are less likely to be bailed out after they’ve been arrested.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “722,000 people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial, or because they’ve just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days.”
The most egregious and heartbreaking well-known case of bail abuse is the story of Kalief Browder. Browder was arrested in 2010 at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He maintained his innocence but was unable to post his $3,000 bail. Browder was sent to Rikers Island jail in New York City, where he remained for three years. A good portion of Browder’s time in prison was spent in solitary confinement. After 31 court appearances, Browder was released on May 29, 2013. He committed suicide two years later. Since Browder’s death, activists and other prominent folks, like Jay-Z, have pushed for criminal-justice reform for solitary confinement.
The mission of the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act would be to stop another Browder case before it even enters the system by replacing the current “money bail” approach with “pretrial assessments with risk-based decision-making.” The emphasis here is to ween the court systems off the money grab of pretrial bails and move closer to an assessment-based system that would allow those who have only been accused, and not convicted, of a crime to be released from jail based on those other considerations.
“Americans should be able to expect fair and equal treatment under the law regardless of how much money is in their pockets or how many connections they have,” said Paul. “By giving states greater freedom to undertake reforms specific to their needs, our legislation will help strengthen protections for minority and low-income defendants, reduce waste, and move our bail system toward more effective methods, such as individualized, risk-based assessments.”
Read the bill in its entirety here (pdf).