In San Francisco, 64-year-old Kenneth Humphrey spent a year in jail, held on a $350,000 bond he could not pay, after being accused of entering a man’s home and stealing $7 and a bottle of cologne. Stories like this are all too common and indicative of a broken justice system. Nearly 500,000 people are incarcerated across the country because they cannot pay their bail, with the majority facing low-level charges. Mandating comprehensive reform surrounding cash bail is one of the clear paths to justice for Americans interacting with the court system. Currently 49 states possess some form of cash bail, preventing hundreds of thousands of Americans from avoiding pre-trial detention. The bail system is extremely dysfunctional and exacerbates inequality. A person’s ability to leave jail and return to their community is dictated by their ability to pay. Courts determine bail by the severity of the crime, leaving the poor behind bars while they await their court date. This disproportionately impacts people of color, cementing the inequality in the criminal justice system.
The breakdown of who is in jail over bail is shocking. 60% of inmates are jailed pre-trial, with 30% unable to afford bail. 75% of pretrial detainees have been charged for just drug or property crimes. People who are held because they cannot afford bail are 40% more likely to commit another low level crime. Inmates unable to pay bail are more likely to accept plea deals; and, pre-trial detention costs over $13,000,000,000 annually. Pretrial detainment has collateral consequences, like losing your job or being unable to provide childcare. Cash bail has developed into a cultural aspect of the judicial system, with judges relying on it to get through crowded dockets. Often the use of cash bail is considered insignificant by actors in the legal system despite the clear damage it can cause to defendants. These clear issues necessitate the development of a grassroots movement for change. This system of cash bail outlined by bail schedules instead of ability to pay is clearly dysfunctional yet remains largely intact.
While this picture is dark, slivers of hope are emerging. New York passed sweeping criminal justice legislation in April 2019 curtailing the use of cash bail and pre-trial detention. The state has come a long way since the widespread public outcry after Kalief Browder was held in pre-trial detention on Rikers Island for three years at the age of 16, allegedly having stolen a backpack in 2010. Horror stories from Rikers Island has become an all too common narrative and has placed urgency on New York legislators to act. Local and state judges are now more aware than ever of the diverse toolbox of alternatives to cash bail, including “supervised release,” which releases defendants from detention with monitoring. Prosecutors in the city have generally reduced the amount of bail requested, and public defenders across the city have fought pretrial detention across the city. The new laws will take effect in January 2020, with New York serving as an incubator for a future without an oppressive bail system.