In Dallas, a 49-year-old grandmother spent two months in jail on $150,000 bail
after being accused of shoplifting $105 worth of school uniforms for her grandkids. She was not jailed because she posed a threat, but because she was too poor to purchase her freedom. In Randolph County, Alabama, 29-year-old Kandace Edwards, unemployed, homeless and seven months pregnant, allegedly forged a $75 check. Slapped with a $7,500 bail amount
she could not pay, Edwards slept on a mat in the jail for one night before a judge granted her a temporary reprieve.
All over America, we keep people locked up who are are too poor to pay bail, even though they have not yet been convicted of a crime. Rarely do these individuals pose a threat to our communities; 75% of people who are locked up
are there for low-level offenses like drug or property crime, according to a study by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School.
It's just a matter of money. If you have it, or if your family manages to scrape together savings, you can buy your way out. If you don't, you sit in jail and wait for your day in court. Every night, there are close to 450,000 people
in American jails waiting, still presumed innocent but too poor to get out.
A system that keeps people locked up because of poverty is morally reprehensible. It also has outsized effects. As people sit in jail awaiting trial, they lose their jobs. When they don't earn an income, they can't pay their rent, buy their family food or make car payments. That's what happened to Lavette Mays, who at age 47 sat in jail for 14 months for a first-time offense, unable to pay 10% of her bail amount -- $25,000
-- or the amount needed to get out of jail. She lost her job, home and couldn't care for her children.
Like much of the criminal justice system, the bail system disproportionately harms communities of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are twice as likely
to be in jail because they can't afford bail as their white counterparts, and they are given higher bail amounts
than white defendants facing the same charges.
While on a listen-and-learn educational tour
in Philadelphia last month, several of us watched an endless stream of people of color learning, via closed-circuit television, that because of high bail amounts, they might be in jail for days, weeks or even months. All who "appeared" that day were people of color, with the exception of one middle-aged white man who announced he had a traumatic brain injury.
At times, the bail system has deadly results. Sandra Bland killed herself after spending three days in a Texas jail, unable to pay her $5,000 cash bail
after police pulled her over for a failure to signal while changing lanes. In New Hampshire last year, Jeffrey Pendleton died while in jail on a marijuana charge, unable to pay $100
to get out.
Incredibly, there is no economic or public safety benefit to balance out this cruel system. Study after study shows that cash bail may harm
public safety. Often, people who are held in jail lose their jobs, and unemployment does not lead to reduced crime long-term.
Also, incarceration is expensive. Keeping people in jail while they await trial costs taxpayers $13.6 billion
yearly, according to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization committed to exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. Why not invest the money being used to keep people in jail on crime-reduction methods: education
, drug treatment
and job training?
We are calling on leaders to change their systems of pretrial detention and on community members to demand that change. City councils and county commissioners can change their money bail systems, as can state legislators. Prosecutors can and should play a part. Their voices are loud, and they should both support bail reform efforts while refraining from asking for high bail amounts for those who pose no real threat to their community. Voters should call their representatives.
And those with means can contribute to bail funds, collections of money compiled by community groups used to help bring home our brothers and sisters who are too poor to pay. While only an intermediate solution, those funds have tremendous effects
. Those brought home are twice as likely to have their cases dismissed or resolved favorably, and almost all make their scheduled court appearances
We are committed to supporting these reforms, and over the next few months we will be highlighting the inequities in our communities while pushing for reforms that can help make our pretrial system fairer. The time for change is now. #EndCashBail