The use of bail money is generally accepted for securing release from jail after an arrest. It is a part of our culture: there are jokes about getting bail money if one anticipates getting into trouble and a very common fundraiser involves donating dollars in order to “bail out” a person raising money for a cause. However what is not well-known is that starting at the time of arrest, many people charged with an offense undergo a confusing, coercive, and expensive process intended to deliver justice. Money alone determines pretrial release for at least 70% of all accused people. Yet, each year, despite money getting harder to come by, bail just gets pricier.
With the era of mass incarceration making the United States #1 in terms of number of residents behind bars, the need for solutions has become increasingly urgent. Current policies and practices around money bail are among the primary drivers of growth in our jail populations. On any given day, 60 percent of the U.S. jail population is composed of people who are not convicted but are being held in detention as they await the resolution of their charge. This time in detention hinders them from taking care of their families, jobs and communities while overcrowding jails and creating unsustainable budgets. In 2011, detaining people in county jails until their court dates was costing counties alone around $9 billion a year.
The ability to pay money bail is neither an indicator of a defendant’s guilt nor an indicator of risk in release. Bail laws and court decisions should provide for both the protection of people who are accused of offenses as well as justice and safety in the community. However, the extensive use of money bail as the primary release mechanism has distorted the pretrial justice process. While cases are resolved, justice is not always served and our communities are not always safer. The focus on money alone as a mechanism for pretrial release means people often are not properly screened for more rational measures of public safety risk: their propensity to flee before their court date or their risk of causing public harm. Meanwhile, those who cannot afford a money bail remain in jail regardless of their risk level or presumed innocence. Evidence suggests that up to 25 percent more people could be safely released from U.S. jails while awaiting trial if better post-arrest measures were put in place.
While it’s possibly that the whole bail system could use a policy re-haul, we’re glad that our bonding agents can begin to practically address the issue of money bail by offering a more affordable option. Buying a bail bond is a vastly more effective and cost-saving practice than paying full money bail for pretrial release.