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How Bail In The Us Really Works

Tagged under: Research USA Court System Criminal Justice
By Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi on August 13, 2015 - Based on this John Oliver segment..

Bail is a part of life for some people. You party, you get arrested, you bail your friend out of jail. Bail is simple – you get arrested, you pay a certain amount of money, and you get out of jail. The court holds that money until the case is over. But imagine you don't have that money. You will be stuck in jail until trial.

An image of a sad person in jail.

That's right – you're arrested for driving with a suspended license? You'll spend months in jail with murderers, thieves, and rapists. Don't want to go to jail? Plead guilty. Take the case of a poor person pulled over for not having paid their vehicle registration renewal fees spending months in jail versus millionaire Robert Durst, who was accused of murder, and was let out of jail for $250,000. He paid his quarter of a million and walked away free. He had enough to pay it off, he didn't care.

An image of Robert Durst smiling while in custody.

The frequency and cost of bail has skyrocketed. An analysis of the New Jersey jail population by Luminosity found that 38.5% of New Jersey's total incarcerated population was in jail solely due to their inability to meet the terms of their bail, with more than 12% of those being there because they couldn't pay $2,500 or less. Jail is supposed to be for dangerous people, but nearly 40% of them are there just because they are poor.

An neon sign advertising bail bonds.

If you can't make bail, you have limited options:

  1. You sit in jail. Most people who are poor enough that they can't pay bail end up losing jobs and housing.
  2. You plead guilty, even if you're not. You can't pay for freedom, so you take the plea that presents you with the option: say you did it, and you're out versus say you didn't, and sit in jail until you can finally go to trial and face up to 10 years MORE than if you took the plea. As most of our readers know, the second you plead guilty and have to check “yes” to have you ever been convicted, you pretty much can't get a job ever again.
  3. You go to a private bail bondsman or public bail service. For 10% to up to 20% of your total bail, whether you're innocent or not, you are able to get one of the highest interest loans possible. And if you don't show up for trial? You can be hunted down by bounty hunters, who are allowed to break into homes and cross state lines. Guess who those bounty hunters are? In 18 states, they can be anyone regardless of education, training, or prior criminal history. That's right – any random person can suddenly have enough legal authority to kidnap a person.

An image of Dog the Bounty Hunter at the beach.

Programs like "Bail Chasers", a program where two teams literally hunt a human being, are evidence of the desensitization of our society to things like this. After the popularity of "Dog the Bounty Hunter", it seems like this is simply the new normal. "All America Wants To Know" from the 60s even knew that bail is destroying our concept of justice. Federal Courts and DC, among a handful of other states have changed their bail rules to be set based on the ability to pay. According to Judge Truman Morrison, not a single man or woman is sitting in jail in DC because they can't afford to pay their bond. How unbelievable is it to you that this is something to be brag about?

An image of Judge Truman Morrison (left) meeting with Guyana's Chancellor Carl Singh (right).

Pretrial services determine whether you are dangerous or a flight risk. If you are not, you are allowed home and monitored by things like ankle monitors or random drug tests. You are even given phone calls to remind you of your next court date. By creating a schedule of pre-arranged hearings and trust, success and effectiveness has increased from Oregon to Florida. Even from the cost perspective, this is a better way of doing things. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts found in FY2013 that supervision by pretrial services cost the government $7.17 per day while keeping people in jail until trial cost $74.61 per day. That's right – your tax dollars are used more efficiently if you let people out rather than keeping them locked up. Think about it: calling to check in versus housing, utilities, and food is unbelievably cheaper.

Americans are encouraged to contact their their local and federal representatives regarding their thoughts on their state's pretrial services.

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