Got bail money? Most Americans do not. Across the United States, almost 500,000 people are in jail every day because they can’t afford money bail. The average bail amount is set at $11,700, which is more than the amount of money most Americans have in savings. Money bail allows those with means to buy their freedom while awaiting trial, as others—disproportionately people of color—languish in jail or are forced to turn to the predatory bail bonds industry. America’s money bail system not only criminalizes poverty, it disproportionally harms Black people and further perpetuates inequalities in our society while doing nothing to advance public safety.
This week, as part of this month’s email series about how our justice system deliberately targets Black people, we’re taking a closer look at what happens in our courts pretrial.
Research shows that money bail is fundamentally unfair and disproportionately burdens black and brown people, especially those with low incomes. Black people are not only more likely to be assessed money bail, but also to have their bail set at higher amounts: one study found that money bail was set nearly $10,000 higher on average for Black people than their White counterparts.
Hundreds of thousands of Black people haven’t been tried or convicted of a crime, yet they sit behind bars because they can’t afford to pay money bail, even amounts as little as $250. This disparity is even more pronounced in the South, where the overt legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are impossible to ignore. For example, in New Orleans, eight out of every ten people who are jailed because they’re too poor to buy their freedom are Black. And, 88 percent of money bail in New Orleans is paid by Black families. This amounts to an enormous extraction of wealth from some of the most vulnerable people in the city. In 2018, a Federal court ruled the New Orleans money bail system unconstitutional, due in part to a conflict of interest: the criminal court funding its operations with a portion of every bail bond fee paid.
The impact of money bail on people’s lives is tangible beyond dollars and cents. People who make bail get to go home...back to their jobs, families, and communities. They can enjoy the presumption of innocence, but those who can’t make bail stay in jail and run the risk of losing their jobs, their housing, and their ability to be present as a mother, father, sister, brother, son, or daughter. Some people plead guilty simply to avoid waiting in jail to be tried, even if they’re innocent.
Poverty should not be a crime, yet an astonishing 62 percent of people awaiting trial are detained, mostly for non-violent offenses, solely because they cannot afford bail.
What is Vera doing to help? We’ve partnered with government, community members, and local organizations in New Orleans, which for decades was the nation’s leading jailer, to implement a series of initiatives that expanded alternatives to arrest and improved case processing. We also launched the city’s first pretrial services program, to change how courts make bail decisions. With Vera’s assistance, New Orleans has reduced its jail population by 80 percent since Hurricane Katrina. The city’s incarceration rate is now at its lowest point since 1979.