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The Power of Bail Reform

Document for release of prisoner, Bail Bond

When you think of mass incarceration and criminal justice, you may not think that bail reform can make much of a difference. Yet, the bail laws that most states follow are one of the most unfair aspects of the criminal justice system. These laws often discriminate along socioeconomic and racial lines. Here are four ways bail reform can help create a more equitable criminal justice system

  1. Bail Reform is an Economic Equalizer

Research shows that even when bail is low, many can’t afford to pay up. This forces pre-trial detainees to stay in jail for days, weeks, or even longer. In a six-year study of Philadelphia jails, almost 40 percent of those who had bail set at or below $500 remained in jail for three days or longer. Bail reform ensures all those arrested have the same rights and freedoms, regardless of the size of their bank accounts. 

  1. Bail Reform Prevents Job Losses and Housing Issues

Currently, staying out of jail means posting bail. Those who can’t afford cash payments often rely on a friend or family member to help out. Unfortunately, pre-trial detainees who have no way of posting bail risk losing their jobs and the needed income to pay for housing and other living expenses. 

This impacts low-income offenders far more than those with greater financial resources. Bail reform ensures an individual can keep working while awaiting trial. 

  1. Bail Reform Reduces False Confessions

The lack of income and/or fear of losing one’s job drives some detainees to make false confessions. A plea agreement can work like a Get-out-of-Jail-Free card or at least drastically reduce charges or shorten sentencing periods. 

Yet, despite plea deals, many detainees must still spend time in jail. The travesty is that innocent people get jail time because they made a plea bargain in order to avoid paying bail.

  1. Bail Reform Removes Some Bias Against People of Color

The criminal justice system has shown itself to be biased against people of color, who are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white Americans. Some of that bias comes from unfair sentencing laws, including sentence enhancements. 

Sentencing reform can promote equality, but it solves only part of the problem. In essence, the bail system perpetuates a cycle of poverty among low-income people, many of whom are people of color. Bail reform levels the playing field substantially and prevents people of color from being exploited by the bond industry.

The bail system is one of the most unfair aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. Changes in policy will protect the rights of pre-trial detainees, make the system more equitable, and prevent the unintended consequences that sometimes accompany arrests—especially for those in vulnerable communities.


About the author

Jennifer Monies is the Vice President of Public Affairs at Saxum, a digital agency obsessed for good. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn for insights into public affairs, social permitting, and education.