End Cash Bail.
Innocent until proven guilty.
That is the bedrock of our justice system. It is a simple concept, but one that reverses centuries of judicial decision-making that were overtly rooted in class, gender, race, and even superstition — a woman in the 17th century, for example, could have burned for witchcraft because the system did not require concrete evidence to prove the crime, and a conviction could occur without trial.
So how could it be that today, people sit behind bars for weeks or even years before a trial ever occurs, simply because they do not have money to pay for their freedom? How did it come to be that hundreds of thousands of people must pay for their freedom before any criminal conduct has been confirmed?
There is no good evidence-based reason for a judge to have cash bail as an option when considering its devastating widespread consequences. The ostensible purpose of bail is to reduce risk of flight and guarantee that a defendant shows up for trial. But there are many ways of achieving this goal that do not impoverish millions of Americans and compound systemic abuse of their bank accounts.
Washington, D.C. is one of the first of many jurisdictions that has demonstrated that partially secured or unsecured bonds, as opposed to cash bail, are superior alternatives. Philadelphia, under new District Attorney Larry Krasner, is now reforming its system along evidence-based best-practices, and its incarcerated population has already declined about 10% since he took office. Bail reform, in conjunction with an expansion to expungement programs, can clear the way to success for hardworking people who have had their rights restored and learn from their tragedies to prevent future systemic abuse. Over time, this will mean more people in the community will avoid having a criminal record in the first place.
The economic impact of this policy shift would be profound. If we attach job trainings and placement programs alongside housing and healthcare assistance, we can cut recidivism rates, reduce gun violence, and provide meaningful jobs and careers that benefit the entire community.
At my core, I understand that nobody is who they seem to be on their worst day — our worst days should not have to define our entire lives. Cash bail is a particularly appalling injustice — not only because it punishes people before the state has even established the conduct in question, (an arrest is not a conviction, and people must be innocent until proven guilty) but also because it financially incentivizes arrests and subsidizes industries that use high interest rates to prey on suffering. When payments cannot be made, interest is due — the state and the bail bond industry both hold assets, in the form of the wallets of the un-convicted, the innocent. Genuine freedom requires equality in the process and dispensation of justice.
Furthermore, all evidence suggests that the practice and its most ardent supporters, like the bail bond industry, leech our communities. The economic benefits of a clean record and of simply not owing money to the state are enormous; mass incarceration, including cash bail, wastes over a trillion dollars in downstream costs every single year in this country. This does not even account for the innumerable benefits gained from rebuilding trust between communities and government. It also does not account for the unquantifiable benefit of avoiding separating a parent from a child, potentially permanently, just because of economic hardship.
Moreover, not only does our current bail system needlessly imprison low-risk and non-violent offenders, but it is also unable to keep criminals with deep pockets or connections to gangs, traffickers, or other nefarious organizations off the streets and prevent them from continuing to commit crimes until their trial. Perhaps the most egregious injustice of all those perpetuated by our system of cash bail is that it fails to ensure public safety by allowing serious criminals to roam free before they are convicted.
As long as the judicial process can run its course, justice can be achieved; cash bail is not a necessary precondition to successful judicial process. Trials can still be ensured with secured or unsecured bail. It may be worth examining evidence-based exceptions to the larger rule, but such exceptions should be rare and the overwhelming majority of cash bail cases undermine equality, the economy, and — the most fundamental birthright given to us all by our Constitution — justice.