The cash bail system creates misery and poverty among in poor and minority communities. A system that was designed to allow folks accused of crimes to be let out jail has become a mechanism to keep them in jail. A bail of $200 can seem insurmountable if you are poor enough. We live in a country that prides itself on the presumption of innocence, but we spend $14,000,000,000 (Fourteen Billion Dollars) a year keeping innocent folks locked up. We are a nation that was founded on principles of freedom but we have the largest prison population in the world.
The right to bail is established in the Bill of Rights. The Eighth Amendment states; “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The intentional vagueness left terms such as excessive, and cruel and unusual open to interpretation. It is easy to point to contemporary situations that anyone would consider, excessive, or cruel and unusual, but let me describe a situation to you that happens far too often in our country.
An urban situation, a brother coming out of the store. Black male, 27 years old, works for an auto supplier. He is picking up a beer after working his shift. Ten minutes and a questionable car stop later, he is getting into the back of the cop car, charged with whatever, or perhaps for a warrant. The bottom line is he is not going to be released before he sees a judge and it will likely cost him some money to get out, in most U.S. jurisdictions.
He will usually get to see a judge, sometimes in person, sometimes via video, within a day or so of arriving at the holding facility, likely a county jail in all but the tiniest areas. Ostensibly, bail is set according to severity of the crime and the likelihood that the person would continue to commit crimes or not show up for the next court date. Our hypothetical young man is not accused of a serious crime, he is working and is a decent risk to show up to court. However, because he is charged with a felony and has failed to show before, his bond is set at $10,000, he is required to post 10% of this, or $1,000 in order to be released from the county jail.
One thousand dollars. How many of us have that much put away for an emergency? Our young man earns $14 per hour on his non-union job. He and his girlfriend, who works 15-20 hours a week making $10 per hour, rent a house for $700 month, and have two children. The tight financial situation will make coming up with the money on their own, nearly impossible. A decent lawyer could get bail lowered at a subsequent hearing, but someone unable to come up with a one thousand dollars likely is being represented by a public defender. Whether or not you get a competent, interested public defender who will skillfully advocate on your behalf or some empty suit is up to the ancestors.
The criminal justice system is a business in this country. There is at least 200 Billion dollars being spent in this country annually to run the prison industrial system. This money is used to police, arrest, jail, try and house the 2.4 million people that we in some way incarcerate each year. The 2.4 million who are locked up contribute to the revenue by providing the bodies to be locked up. By being accused, arrested, jailed, tried, and incarcerated the inmates are creating wealth for the folks who make their livings by working in this system. When uninformed people try to tell me that folks in jail are not contributing to society, I will beg to differ.
If things do not go exactly right for our young man, he could be sitting in jail for months because of a relatively minor charge. With the main breadwinner locked up, the entire family is put in peril of homelessness or worse. (We acknowledge that in the United States the criminal justice system is a part of the institutionally racist systems that control our institutions. I don’t believe I have to argue to any relatively awake and well-read person that the institutions in our country are inherently racist. I can certainly make this the subject of a future essay.) The present cash bail system allows an inherently racist criminal justice system to control and terrorize poor and minority communities by holding folks hostage who have not been convicted of a crime.
Our perception of the criminal justice system will vary widely depending on race and economic situation. Think about this for your family; would having to post $1K in cash bail to buy your freedom put you in a serious hole? Many would suggest that most folks making the salary that our young man makes, should have some savings, but a little math is all we need to arrive at reality.
Making $14 an hour would give you a bi-weekly paycheck of $1,120 before taxes and $900 after taxes, a total of $1,800 every two weeks. Expenses are; $700 rent, $300 auto expenses, $300 food, $300 misc. including cell phone, utilities. That leaves $200 a month for savings/discretionary income. Even if he saved every cent his discretionary income, it would take 5 months to get $1,000 in the bank. When our young man was arrested, his car was towed and impounded. This will cost him $200 to start, plus $30 dollars a day. Our young man needs his vehicle to go to work, without it, he can’t earn his income.
The cash bail system should be eliminated because it uses poor people as fodder or raw material in the 200 billion prison industry. Without prisoners, poor folks who can’t bail out of jail and end up pleading to crimes they did not commit just to be released. Our cash bail system is a mess, and it is symptomatic of our criminal justice system, which is also is also a travesty.
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