The recent deaths of Sandra Bland in Texas and of Kaleif Browder in New York, two people who were held in jail—to devastating effect—because they couldn’t afford bail, have put a national spotlight on the country’s bail system and how countless people are languishing in jail simply because they’re poor. An article in last week’s
New York Times Magazine
highlights the New York City bail system to illustrate how low-income people—many of them people of color—become entrapped in the criminal justice system as a result of not being able to post bail, the damage that a bail system causes and the need for drastic and speedy reform.
According to the article, at any given time, approximately 450,000 people are in pre-trial detention in the United States either because they can’t pay bail or they were denied bail. In New York City alone, nearly 45,000 sit in jail because they could not meet the bail set for their cases, even though the city sets bail comparatively lower than the rest of the country. The
New York Times Magazine
reports: “Even when bail is set . . . at $500 or less, as it is in one-third of non-felony cases—only 15 percent of defendants are able to come up with the money to avoid jail.”
The article points out that reforming the bail system would require “a complete reordering of the criminal justice system.” As of now, most poor defendants accept plea deals because they cannot afford to post bail. This means that their cases never make it to trial, only relieving an already overburdened court system. Sadly, many of the people taking guilty pleas are doing so because they are poor, not because they’re guilty of committing crimes.
Scott Hechinger, a senior trial attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, says that the last question the judge asks a defendant who enters a guilty plea is: “Are you pleading guilty freely and voluntarily because you are in fact guilty?” Hechinger says, “A lot of time, at that last question, you feel the client beside you bristle . . . Everyone in the room knows it’s not ‘freely and voluntarily.’ They’re making a decision coerced by money. In many cases, if they had money, they wouldn’t be pleading. But they put their heads down and they say, ‘Yes.’ It’s a horrible and deflating feeling.”
Job, families and housing are disrupted if not lost because of bail. As a result, some decision-makers are making efforts to change the system. Perhaps the most promising measure at the moment is a citywide fund set up by the New York City Council to pay bail for low-level offenders. The fund is modeled after a bail fund established by the Bronx Defenders in 2007. Statistics based on the defendants bailed out by that fund showed that more than half of the clients “saw their charges completely dismissed. Not a single client went to jail on the charges for which bail had been posted. . . . The numbers showed what everyone familiar with the system already knew anecdotally: Bail makes poor people who would otherwise win their cases plead guilty.”
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