Across the United States, jails are overcrowded. But what’s more surprising is that most of the people detained in local jails have not even been convicted of a crime and are only awaiting trial for petty misdemeanors.
The New York Times reports that there are currently some 480,000 people in prison but are not sentenced – 480,000 lives put on hold for not being able to afford bail because the current justice system enables it.
To reduce the enormous populations of the country’s local jails, one solution has been found – a major reform in the U.S. bail system. Over the years, there have been many promising efforts to push for bail reform, which culminated in a national movement and several jurisdictions experimenting with new systems.
What’s Wrong with the Current System
The current bail system in the U.S. is predominantly monetary. Basically, if you are awaiting trial, a judge will set a bail amount, which is determined based on standard practices, at a suspect’s first court appearance after an arrest.
For nonviolent petty misdemeanors and infractions, the standard bail amount is $500. It goes higher the more serious the offense is. If the accused is eligible for bail and is able to pay it right away, he or she can stay out of custody while the case is pending. The bail process may vary between jurisdictions. It is the magistrate or judge who decides if the defendant is eligible for bail and may be released from custody.
What’s wrong with the current system is that it is unfair to the poor and even falls harder on mothers and people of color. Requiring the accused to pay a cash bail for freedom violates the promise of equal access to justice under the constitution. Raleigh Bail Bonds notes that this process can be a real problem for the middle class or poor defendants as it can lead to days to years in jail prior to trial.
Who Will Benefit From a Reform?
A cash bail reform will obviously benefit poor people the most, but also people of color and indigent immigrants. In the long run, it will be advantageous to state jurisdictions and local jails, as the populations of pretrial detainees will significantly decrease.
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While some jurisdictions are calling for states to abolish bail for the poor, some are recommending stricter pretrial conditions to assure the community’s safety and a defendant’s return to court. There are, after all, other means to prevent flight before trial other than cash bail. But ultimately, the reform seeks to get poor, non-violent people who committed petty offenses, but can’t afford bail out of local jails.
It may not seem like it, but the U.S. bail system affects everyone similar to how bail bonds in Raleigh, NC work. It is a national problem, considering that U.S. taxpayers pay an estimated $9 billion annually for incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted.
Spending long periods behind bars without being convicted of a crime can be a grueling and life-altering experience. The accused could lose a house, job, friends, and cause many hardships to the family.
A bail reform will prevent this from happening, and will also solve jail overcrowding and save taxpayers’ money for other worthwhile efforts of safeguarding the community. Detainees who pose no serious threat to the community equally deserve to walk freely as those who can pay for freedom.