On any given day, roughly half a million unconvicted people sit in jail, at a cost to taxpayers of about $14 billion a year. Incarcerated defendants are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to jail or prison compared with those who are released—and for longer times. Pretrial detention can also cause defendants devastating personal losses, including interrupted schooling and medical care, and lost jobs and housing.
No one experiences the injustice of money bail more than communities of color—especially black people. In the United States, black people are two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested than whites—which means black people are more likely to post bail during their lives and are required to pay higher bail amounts. For black men, money-bond amounts are 35 percent more on average than those given to white men. This bail-amount disparity, combined with historic and ongoing economic inequity, creates a system that enables our jails and prisons to be so disproportionately filled with black people.
Even before news headlines drew attention to how spectacularly the money-bail system had failed Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland, Allen Bullock and others who suffered unduly because of irrational and unaffordable money bonds, the black community was eager for this to change. The introduction in February of the No More Money Bail Act of 2016 and the growing campaign of everyday people to support its passage shows that now Congress may also be ready.
This bill gives states three years to replace money bail with alternatives, like release or detention after arrest, based on a defendant’s likelihood of committing a new crime or failing to appear in court. States that continue to detain defendants simply because they are poor will be ineligible for federal funds that they depend on to pay for common justice programs and initiatives. Surveys by the Pretrial Justice Institute have found that most voters—across all demographics—support initiatives like this because they see the damage that bail bonds have on poor people.
Criminal-justice stakeholders are ready for this change, too. National organizations representing police, prosecutors, judges, the defense bar and others have called for pretrial reform because they know how rigged and ineffective the current practice is. Even the Department of Justice has weighed in, writing, “Any bail or bond scheme that mandates payment of prefixed amounts for different offenses in order to gain pretrial release, without any regard for indigence, not only violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, but also constitutes bad public policy.”
Systemic change is rarely easy, but replacing money bail should be. Numerous national and local initiatives to replace money bail with risk-based practices are already under way. Upon passage of the No More Money Bail Act, states can protect their federal funding by joining this movement and adopting these practices.
Money bail doesn't make communities safer, but it does pillage the resources and incomes of millions of black people. It's time for our country to stop forcing people to pay for their freedom. As Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego stated, “Bail should be based on risk, not resources.”
Now is the time to let your congress members know: Money bail has to go.
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