#20: How Bail Traps the Poor


To get released before trial, most American courts require defendants to post bail money. For people too poor to raise even the lowest amounts, this means staying in jail while waiting for trial to begin. Regardless of guilt, those with means can walk free to prepare from afar. Staying in jail awaiting trial damages both lives and legal cases: people in custody lose jobs, housing, and property, and statistics show that they end up with longer sentences if they’re found guilty. And all of this costs taxpayers billions. But there's a better way.

Judge Truman Morrison of the District of Columbia Superior Court told the Washington Post, “We’ve proven it can work without money, but the whole country continues as if in a trance to do what we know does not work,” and he's a man of his word. D.C. courts can’t hold people before trial just because they can’t raise bail money. Courts use a combination of non-financial conditions to make sure defendants show up for court and don’t get re-arrested while awaiting trial. And guess what? It works.

The U.S. Department of Justice just announced it would support a challenge to the constitutionality of bail "schedules" used by Georgia and other states, arguing that these set schedules for bail payments discriminate against the poor. Read up here.

“There is no evidence you need money to get people back to court. It’s irrational, ineffective, unsafe and profoundly unfair.”