In a bold attempt to correct a major flaw in America’s criminal (in)justice system, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would end cash bail at the federal level and incentivize states that follow suit.
Named the No Money Bail Act, the bill (pdf) would formally end the use of secured bonds in federal criminal proceedings and provide grants to states that implement alternate pretrial systems and reduce their pretrial detention population; for states that don’t follow suit, the act would withhold grant funding from states that use money-bail systems.
“In the mist of a broken criminal justice system, what is totally insane is that you’ve got around 400,000 people—perhaps 20 percent of people in jail today—in jail for the crime of being poor. That’s their crime,” Sanders told The Root. “We should not in the year of 2018 be locking up hundreds of thousands of people who have been convicted of nothing.”
America’s poor have always struggled with local and federal bail systems, but what brought the unjust practice to the national spotlight was the tragic case of Kalief Browder. Accused of stealing a backpack in 2015, Browder was held in Rikers Island for three years because he could not afford the $3,000 bail for his release. Nearly 800 of those days were spent in solitary confinement. He also suffered abuse at the hands of jail guards and gangs. Because prosecutors didn’t have a case, they dismissed all charges and Browder was released. The young man never recovered from the traumatic experience and hung himself at his mother’s home in 2015.
Sandra Bland, who was stopped for a simple traffic violation in Texas, was brutally arrested, jailed and slapped with a $500 bail she could not afford; she was found dead in her cell three days later. Black women make up more than 44 percent of women in jails and often the fines are for very minor offenses such as loitering and possession of very small amounts of drugs.
The $2 billion cash-bail industry (pdf) disproportionately impacts people of color, something that Sanders acknowledges.
“You know and I know that, in a disproportionate matter, people behind bars are black, they are Latino, they are Native American. Disproportionately. But this is also race and economics merged together on this issue,” Sanders says. “The reason people are in jail and they can’t afford their bail is because they are poor. So, yeah, you can argue this is a race issue. It disproportionately impacts minorities. That’s true. But it’s also an economic issue in a sense that if you are a poor, white person, you’re gonna be in the same position.”
As admirable as Sanders’ attempt is to correct a major flaw in the criminal injustice system, his dearth of racial analysis undermines his appreciation of how dire the cash bail system is. To be assessed a bail amount, you have to be arrested. As has been well-documented, black and Latino people are disproportionately profiled by law enforcement—especially in places like New York City that have long records of racially profiling black and Latino people under stop and frisk.
The U.S. Department of Justice discovered that the city of Ferguson, Mo., where Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, targeted black residents with steep traffic fines that generated millions in revenue for the small town. Indeed, being poor exacerbates the situation because the victim cannot get out of it because they lack the money. But the main reason why they are in the situation in the first place is primarily because of racial profiling.
White people do not find themselves in the same position as black people when it comes to racial profiling. which leads to the inability to pay bail or fight back against unfair traffic fines or police stops.
Simply put: Racism is not a byproduct of being poor. Racism is a product of white supremacy and must be addressed specifically.
Sanders has been criticized—especially by this reporter—for not raising his IQ on institutional racism up to his well-developed understanding of economics. Moreover, one really cannot understand the economics of America without realizing that its genesis is predicated on white supremacy. There is a reason why the black unemployment rate has dragged behind that of whites since 1954.
To be sure, Sanders is doing the right thing by taking on cash bail and said that he is trying to get support for it in Congress. Given how Trump-drunk Congressional Republicans are at the moment, it is unlikely that his bill will gain much traction. But that isn’t stopping Sanders from trying to get it passed and he deserves credit for that.
A lot, in fact.
There is speculation that Sanders might run for president again. In previous interviews, he has said he is undecided and that he is focused on winning the 2018 midterms for Democrats. When asked about supporting black women in their primaries, Sanders brought up his support of Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia and has a strong chance of becoming the first black female governor in the United States.
Sanders succeeds in explaining how to deal with the economic fallout of racist economic systems like cash bail but fails to explain the specifics on how to deal with racism that keeps them going in the first place. As I have mentioned in previous reporting, Sanders is making efforts to be more aware of systematic racism—albeit stubbornly, by finding a way to tie racism to economics at every turn without realizing that racism doesn’t need a purely economic motive.
When asked about identity politics and the need to directly take on racism in America, Sanders acknowledged that we all have to work to rid the country of racism at all levels of society. “But simultaneously we have got to do things like guarantee health care for all people. It’s an issue of importance for people in the African-American community and everybody in this country. We have to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. We have got to make public and community college tuition free. So I look at these issue from both lenses,” he says.
“There are issues that obviously are specifically of concern to African Americans, Latinos and have got to be addressed. On the other hand, you have broad economic issues of improving the economy for all people, whether they are black, white, Latino or anybody else.”