WASHINGTON – Blacks 18 to 29 years-old pay more to get out of jail than Whites and Latinos in a system that costs taxpayers more than $9 billion annually, a recent study shows.
In “Bail Fail: Why the U.S. should end the practice of using money for bail,” the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on justice reform, reports that the use of money as a condition of prerelease before trial falls short of ensuring public safety or accurately measuring whether a person will return to court for trial.
Prior to 1992, most people were released on their own recognizance. Now, people living in the top 75 populated counties in the U.S can expect to pay at least $10,000 for bail.
Driven by the for-profit bail bond industry, bail amounts soared $30,000 over the last two decades. And it’s not the bail bondsmen who are on the hook if the defendant doesn’t show up for the trial. The bail bondsmen goes after your mother or your wife or whoever paid the bond premium for that full amount, said Spike Bradford, a senior research associate at JPI.
Bradford compared the for-profit bail bonding industry to predatory check cash outlets that prey on low-income populations who can ill-afford their services.
Yet, those who can’t afford to post bond may suffer another set of hardships because of detention, including lost wages, housing or healthcare and disturbances to their family life.
Responsibilities on the outside often force innocent people to make tough decisions on the inside. Fifty percent of defendants who committed no crimes at all took guilty pleas to avoid convictions and maximum penalties. In 2006, guilty pleas accounted for 96 percent of all felony convictions with only 3 percent making it to a trial.
JPI found that Blacks suffer disproportionately under the current bail system.
The report states that “although a judicial officer may not give a high bail amount specifically because of a defendant’s race, the person may have had difficulty getting a job due to his race, and thus, was rated as a higher flight risk due to an unstable income.”
Finding work in the current economy is a problem that many Blacks wrestle with even without the threat of ill-timed court cases. According to the latest jobs report released by the Department of Labor the unemployment rate for Blacks (14.1 percent) nearly doubled the rate for Whites (7.2 percent).
Blacks are held in jail at rate that’s almost five times greater than Whites. It is also harder for jailed defendants to plan an effective defense and jurors often associate jail uniforms and shackles with guilt.
“When a judge or judicial official sets the bail they’re looking at this person to determine how responsible they are going to be,” said Melissa Neal, author of “Bail Fail” and senior research associate at JPI. “If they’re wearing a jumpsuit they look harmful, if they’re disheveled, they look irresponsible.”
The available research paints a murky correlation between the race of the accused and pretrial outcomes, but “there is a race problem,” Neal said. “There are still judicial officials who will, just based on skin color, set a higher bail because they believe that person may be more dangerous.”
Although the American Bar Association and the National Association of Pretrial Service Agencies developed guidelines for the pretrial process, most jurisdictions fail to utilize them, choosing to rely on custom requirements that vary from state to state.
Neal said that there’s a huge cost benefit associated with using pretrial service agencies.
JPI research showed that the state of Maryland spends $125 per day detaining a person in jail, while releasing them under the supervision of a pretrial service agency cost the state approximately $20 per day.
Washington, D.C. abandoned the for-profit bail bonding model in 1968 operating under the Bail Reform Act of 1966 that set nine conditions for pretrial risk assessment:
•Nature and circumstance of the offense
•Weight of evidence
•Character and mental condition
•Length of time at current residence
•Record of convictions
•Appearance record at court proceedings
The JPI study reported that in Washington, D.C. “eighty percent of people charged with an offense are released on non-financial bail options to await resolution of their charge” and “88 percent successfully complete the pretrial process by appearing in court and not being rearrested.”
Neal said, “Risk assessment helps judges make informed and objective decisions.” She explained that expanding the use of uniform risk assessment during the pretrial stage are a good way to move away from the money bail system while promoting public safety.
In “Bail Fail,” Neal also suggested a number of reforms to the current use of money bail including: escalating the use of not-for-profit pretrial service agencies, banning for profit bail bonding companies and educating the public about the pretrial process.
Neal said that even the most impacted communities often don’t know their rights when they get arrested.
“They can actually ask for a defense at the bail setting so that a lawyer can go with them when their bail is set to advocate for them getting a bail that is appropriate,” said Neal. “A lot of people don’t know that they can get an attorney at that stage.”
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent