Talk Poverty: The Many Injustices of the Money Bail System

April 27, 2016
Opinion: Op-Eds

https://talkpoverty.org/2016/04/27/the-many-injustices-of-the-money-bail-system/ 

After reading about the recent death of 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton—who was being held in a New Hampshire jail simply because he couldn’t afford to pay $100 in bail—my reaction was anger.  Why was Mr. Pendleton held in jail in the first place?  He had not been convicted of a crime, nor did he appear to pose a flight risk or danger to the public. He was locked up simply because he was poor. And he died in a jail cell.

Tragically, stories like his are far too common in America, and they are the reason I have introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2016 to reform our system of pretrial detention.

Last July, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal while driving in Texas. She was put in jail and bail was set at $5,000, an amount she could not afford to pay. Three days later she was found hanged in her cell.  And Qiana Williams, who shared her story at the White House last December and on Capitol Hill this past February, spent weeks in a St. Louis jail because she couldn’t afford to pay court and traffic fees.

Across the country, it comes down to this: People of means are able to pay their way out of jail, while the poor remain behind bars awaiting their day in court.

Even for those who can muster the funds, the money bail system is unfair.

In San Francisco, 29-year-old Crystal Patterson, who gets by on a $12.50-an-hour job, paid a bail bondsman $1,500 plus interest to post her $150,000 bail so she could return home to care for her grandmother.  She also signed an agreement to pay back the $15,000 bond posted by the bail bondsman. Afterwards, the District Attorney dropped the charges, but, though the bail bondsman would have been returned the $150,000 bail, Patterson is unlikely to ever see the money she paid to the bail bond company.

At any given moment, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up without ever having been convicted of a crime.  In my home state of California, more than two-thirds of those in jail haven’t been convicted, a total of more than 42,000 people.

Moreover, even a few days in jail can be devastating for families—especially those that are already fighting to make ends meet.  Perversely, money bail gives inmates a strong incentive to plead guilty, even when innocent, because they cannot afford bail and need to get back to their families, jobs, or education. Being locked up can also increase an individual’s risk of suicide and depression.

Finally, unnecessary pretrial detention of low-risk defendants is expensive. State and local governments in the U.S. spend an estimated $14 billion annually to incarcerate people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. In contrast, pretrial systems based on risk, rather than wealth, cost on average $7 per day.

For these reasons, most nations consider money bail an obstruction of justice. In fact, the only other country that maintains a large commercial bail bond industry is the Philippines. In the case of our disgraceful bail system, American exceptionalism is decidedly not a good thing.

Any serious effort at criminal justice reform must address our feudal-like bail system, which amounts to modern-day debtors’ prisons.  The “No Money Bail Act of 2016,” which I introduced earlier this year, would eliminate the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release at the federal level, and also would give states three years to switch to alternative systems or else forfeit law enforcement grants.

Justice in America should not be bought and paid for.  For the sake of Jeffrey Pendleton, Sandra Bland, Qiana Williams, and the countless other Americans who have suffered at the hands of our unjust money bail system, it is long past time that the United States join the rest of the civilized world when it comes to pretrial incarceration.