There’s a profound injustice at the heart of the American legal system. Those who can afford to pay bail go home to await trial, while those that can’t, whether innocent or guilty, face an unconscionable choice: sit in jail until backlogged courts can hear their case — which can take months, or even years — or plead guilty to go free. The amounts at issue are shockingly low, often $1000 or less.
Cash bail criminalizes poverty, devastating low-income communities and disproportionately affecting women and people of color. Pretrial detention accounts for all jail growth in the U.S. in the past 20 years. We cannot end mass incarceration without addressing our indefensible bail system.
This is why The Bail Project is focusing on paying people’s bail on an unprecedented scale. We provide immediate relief to those caught in this two-tier system of justice, restoring the presumption of innocence and bringing us closer towards an end to mass incarceration.
But wait, you might ask: isn’t cash bail necessary to ensure people come back to court?
No. Here’s why.
In 2007, the Bronx Freedom Fund, the first-of-its-kind nonprofit, revolving bail fund in the country, began serving the Bronx community. Data from this pilot program became the proof of concept for The Bail Project, which we are scaling across the country. The Bronx data showed that with support from our program:
Source: The Bronx Freedom Fund
That’s right. The vast majority of people came back to court even when they didn’t have their own money on the line. As it turns out, effective court reminders, support throughout the legal process — like transportation assistance and childcare — and referrals to voluntary social services, are all that is needed. These simple strategies have been proven to significantly improve court appearance rates.
Our experience in the Bronx also illustrates what happens when guilty pleas can’t be coerced with the threat of pretrial incarceration:
Source: The Bronx Freedom Fund
Freedom from pretrial detention empowers people to fight for their day in court. But it does more, it prevents the life-threatening consequences of even a short jail stay.
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.
Low-income women, LGBTQ people and communities of color bear the disproportionate impact of these injustices.
And the scale of this crisis is massive. Each year the U.S. books more people into local jail than the populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined.
Unaffordable cash bail is the oil that keeps the plea-bargaining machine running, turning the exercise of justice into an assembly line and keeping people in jail cells who have not been convicted of anything.
This is not only immoral and unjust — it’s also outrageously expensive and unnecessary.
Taxpayers spend an estimated $14 billion annually incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted of anything, and because jail fuels cycles of poverty, the collateral costs are estimated to be as high as $140 billion every year.
It’s time to do something about this injustice — something big, audacious and world changing.