On any given night in America, 450,000 people are in local jails without being convicted of a crime — the vast majority of whom are there solely due to financial hardship. That’s about the total number of people who live in Miami.
These people are disproportionately of color, and for them, there are only two choices: Plead guilty to their charge, or sit in jail until backlogged court systems can hear their case — which can often take weeks or months. This isn’t how bail is supposed to work.
Bail was originally intended to serve as an incentive for people to return to court — you come back, you get your money. It wasn’t intended to keep people in jail who couldn’t afford to pay.
When someone is locked up and can’t afford to pay their bail, terrible things happen. Even one night in jail can cause someone to lose their job, their home, and even custody of their children. For many, it can jeopardize immigration status. And just a few nights in jail risks serious, irrevocable physical and mental harm. Studies show the first three days in jail are when people are most likely to suffer physical assaults and sexual violence.
Over the last 15 years, increases in pretrial detention accounted for 99% of all jail growth. Those detained ahead of trial are four times more likely to receive a jail sentence than those at liberty, and their average jail sentences are three times longer. Those detained are also significantly more likely to be re-arrested after their lives have been destabilized by a jail stay.
Each year the U.S. books more people in jail than the populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined.
Taxpayers spend an estimated $14 billion annually incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted of anything, and because jail contributes so profoundly to the perpetuation of poverty, the collateral costs are estimated to be as high as $140 billion every year.