Front End Criminal Justice Reform: Ending Money Bail

April 11, 2019

Man with money stands in front of door labelled "home", man with no money stands in front of prison cell

Every day in the US hundreds of thousands of people languish behind bars even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Why? They can’t afford to pay bail.

Almost everyone, for example, being housed (in “unspeakably hellish” conditions) at St. Louis’s infamous Workhouse jail would be free if they had the money to post bail. Struggling to get by shouldn’t be a crime. Having black or brown skin shouldn’t be either, but 90% of Workhouse inmates are Black, even though Black people make up less than 50% of St. Louis’s population.

America’s system of money bail criminalizes poverty and discriminates against people of color. It fills our jails with people who should be free: free to go to school and work, to be with their families, and to contribute to their communities. It’s time to transform this failed system. You can help.


What Is Money Bail?

After someone is arrested, they go before a judge, and the judge, in most cases, sets bail. Bail is the price of freedom: if you pay it, you can go free before your trial. As long as defendants follow judges’ rules and show up in court when they’re supposed to, they’ll get that money back.

Sounds reasonable so far, right? Well, what may sound okay in theory plays out very differently in real life. Here’s the problem: If you’re struggling to keep your head above water and pay the bills every month, even a few hundred dollars in bail is way more than you can afford. And then you’re in trouble.


Criminalizing Poverty

OK, so you’ve been arrested but you can’t pay bail. What can you do?

You can go to a bail bond company. Yes, they’ll pay the bail for you, but there’s a big catch: they take a percentage of that bail for their fee, usually at least 15 percent, and they keep that money regardless of your guilt or innocence. The bail bond industry preys on people who can least afford it and have historically and systemically been trapped in poverty. These companies pocket at least $2 billion a year and make huge profits off of people’s hard luck.

So that leaves you with two other options (neither is good):

  1. Stay in jail until your trial
  2. Plead guilty in the hopes that you’ll get released

When faced with the prospect of staying locked up, many people will go with option 2, even if they’re innocent. Why? Because if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you most likely don’t have the kind of job that’ll still be there for you after days, weeks, or months behind bars. And if you go that long without making money, then you probably also won’t have a place to live once you’re released. It gets worse: studies show that staying in jail before your trial increases your chances of being convicted (it also leads to an increase in crime). On the other hand, pleading guilty goes on your record, which affects your education, employment, and housing prospects forever.


Racial Bias in the System

That’s a stark choice. It’s one that a just and fair legal system would never force people to make. But a closer look reveals that, while money bail punishes people who are paid low wages, people of color are hit hardest (as they are at every level of the criminal justice system).

Black defendants are more likely than white defendants to be assigned money bail—and the bail amounts are almost $10,000 higher on average than those assigned to white defendants. Black people are routinely locked up more often before trial. And even the algorithms employed by courts to set bail have racist assumptions built into their calculations.


The Good News

So, money bail disproportionately hurts poor people and people of color. It doesn’t keep us any safer. It’s contributed to huge increases in the prison population. And guess what else? It’s incredibly expensive! It costs about $140 billion a year to keep people who haven’t been convicted of anything locked up. We’re talking $40 million a day!

The good news is that there are serious efforts underway to transform or even do away with the money bail system. Surveys show that Americans want reform. California was the first state to eliminate money bail. New Jersey instituted its own reforms, and New York is working on it too.

This progress is the result of years of work from organizations like our partners, Color of Change and Advancement Project. Other efforts are also underway. The Bail Project, for example, is creating a national fund to get low-income people who can’t pay their bail out of jail. The movement is gaining momentum. Join us today and help eliminate this failed system. For the hundreds of thousands of innocent people trapped behind bars, change can’t come soon enough.