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← The problem with the U.S. bail system - Camilo Ramirez

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Showing Revision 4 created 09/25/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. Since 2000, the annual number of people
    convicted of crimes in the United States
  2. has stayed steady, but the average number
    of people in jail each year has shot up.
  3. How can that be?
  4. The answer lies in the bail system—
  5. which isn’t doing
    what it was intended to do.
  6. The term "bail" refers to the release
    of people awaiting trial

  7. on condition that they return
    to court to face charges.
  8. Countries around the world
    use many variations of bail,
  9. and some don’t use it at all.
  10. The U.S. bail system relies primarily
    on what’s called cash bail,
  11. which was supposed to work like this:
  12. When a person was accused of a crime,

  13. the judge would set
    a reasonable price for bail.
  14. The accused would pay this fee
    in order to be released from jail
  15. until the court reached
    a verdict on the case.
  16. Once the case ended,
    whether found guilty or innocent,
  17. they’d get the bail money back
    if they made all their court appearances.
  18. The rationale behind this system
    is that under U.S. law,
  19. people are presumed innocent
    until proven guilty—
  20. so someone accused of a crime
    should not be imprisoned
  21. unless they’ve been convicted of a crime.
  22. But today, the bail system in the U.S.

  23. doesn’t honor the presumption
    of innocence.
  24. Instead, it subverts peoples’ rights
    and causes serious harm,
  25. particularly to people
    in low-income communities
  26. and communities of color.
  27. A key reason why is the cost of bail.

  28. In order for cash bail
    to work as intended,
  29. the price has to be affordable
    for the accused.
  30. The cost of bail wasn’t meant to reflect
    the likelihood of someone’s guilt—
  31. when bail is set, the court
    has not reviewed evidence.
  32. Under exceptional circumstances,
    such as charges of very serious crimes,
  33. judges could deny bail
    and jail the accused before their trial.
  34. Judges were supposed to exercise
    this power very rarely,
  35. and could come under scrutiny
    for using it too often.
  36. Setting unaffordably high bail
    became a second path
  37. to denying people pretrial release.
  38. Judges' personal discretion
    and prejudices played a huge role
  39. in who they chose to detain this way.
  40. Bail amounts climbed higher and higher,
    and more and more defendants couldn’t pay—
  41. so they stayed in jail.
  42. By the late 19th century,

  43. these circumstances led to the rise
    of commercial bail bond companies.
  44. They pay a defendant’s bail, in exchange
    for a hefty fee the company keeps.
  45. Today, the median bail is $10,000—

  46. a prohibitively high price
    for almost half of Americans,
  47. and as many as nine out of ten defendants.
  48. If the defendant can’t pay,
  49. they may apply for a loan
    from a commercial bail bond company.
  50. It’s completely up to the company
    to decide whose bail they’ll pay.
  51. They choose defendants they think
    will pay them back,
  52. turning a profit of about
    $2 billion each year.
  53. In fact, in the past 20 years,

  54. pretrial detention has been the main
    driver of jail growth in America.
  55. Every year, hundreds of thousands
    of people
  56. who can’t afford bail or secure a loan
    stay in jail until their case is resolved.
  57. This injustice disproportionately affects
    Americans who are Black and Latino,
  58. for whom judges often set higher bail
  59. than for white people accused
    of the same offenses.
  60. Unaffordable bail puts even innocent
    defendants in an impossible position.

  61. Some end up pleading guilty to crimes
    they did not commit.
  62. For minor offenses, the prosecution
    may offer a deal that credits time
  63. already spent in jail toward
    the accused’s sentence
  64. if they plead guilty.
  65. Often, the time they’ve already spent in
    jail is the total length of the sentence,
  66. and they can go home immediately—
    but they leave with a criminal record.
  67. Defending their innocence, meanwhile,
  68. can mean staying in jail indefinitely
    awaiting trial—
  69. and doesn’t guarantee
    an innocent verdict.
  70. Bail may not even be necessary
    in the first place.

  71. Washington, D.C. largely abolished
    cash bail in the 1990s.
  72. In 2017, the city released 94%
    of defendants without holding bail money,
  73. and 88% of them returned
    to all their court dates.
  74. The nonprofit organization,
    The Bail Project,
  75. provides free bail assistance to thousands
    of low-income people every year,
  76. removing the financial incentive
    that bail is designed to create.
  77. The result? People come back
    to 90% of their court dates
  78. without having any money on the line,
  79. and those who miss their court dates
    tended to
  80. because of circumstances like child care,
    work conflicts, or medical crises.
  81. Studies have also found that holding
    people in jail before trial,
  82. often because they cannot
    afford cash bail,
  83. actually increases the likelihood
    of rearrests and reoffending.
  84. The damage of incarcerating people
    before their trials

  85. extends to entire communities
    and can harm families for generations.
  86. People who are incarcerated
    can lose their livelihoods, homes,
  87. and access to essential services—
  88. all before they’ve been convicted
    of a crime.
  89. It’s also incredibly expensive:
  90. American taxpayers spend
    nearly $14 billion every year
  91. incarcerating people
    who are legally presumed innocent.
  92. This undermines the promise
    of equal justice under the law,
  93. regardless of race or wealth.
  94. The issues surrounding cash bail
    are symptomatic of societal problems,

  95. like structural racism and over-reliance
    on incarceration,
  96. that need to be addressed.
  97. In the meantime,
    reformers like The Bail Project
  98. are working to help people trapped
    by cash bail
  99. and to create a more just and humane
    pretrial system for the future.