Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Bail Is So Expensive, It Forces Innocent People To Plead Guilty

‘Plead guilty, go home. Plead not guilty, stay in jail.’

After a criminal gets arrested, the courts have to make sure they don’t run away before trial. To do that, they make you pay a certain amount of money that gets returned to you after the trial. If you don’t show up, the court keeps the money.

Sounds simple enough. The problem is that a huge portion of the population can’t afford to put up bail money in the first place. The median bail in California, for example, is around $50,000. Considering that nearly 60% of the country doesn’t even have $500 in savings, it’s easy to see why so many people struggle to come up with the money.

Troy Thompson, a Brooklyn resident arrested for criminal mischief, waits to be bailed out by a non-profit community fund. | Philip Montgomery/New York Times

The solution is to contact a bail bondsman. A bondsman will post bail for you if you pay them a non-refundable fee for their services — usually about 10% of whatever bail is. Additionally, bail bondsmen often demand some kind of collateral in case you decide to skip out of your court date. If you’ve been arrested — even for a crime you didn’t commit — you could end up paying thousands of dollars just to get out of jail.

For some people, even 10% of their bail is still unaffordable. These people have no choice other than to sit in jail and wait for trial — even if they’re innocent. The Guardian reports that criminal cases take a minimum of three months to go to trial in New York City. In that time, the accused likely will have lost their job, in addition to the wages they would’ve earned.

Think this is a fringe problem for a small portion of the population? Think again. The Justice Policy Institute says that around 60% of prisoners haven’t been convicted — they’re just sitting in jail, waiting for trial. In 2011 alone, the practice of keeping people in jail until their court date cost the world economy $9 billion.

Overcrowding is a huge issue for both jails and prisons in the US. | Justin Sullivan/Getty

Sadly, a large portion of people who are in jail waiting for trial are probably innocent. Again, take California as an example: Of the 1.5 million people arrested for felony offenses in the state from 2011–2015, 500,000 of them were eventually released because they could not be convicted.

The scary truth is that it’s often easier to confess to a crime than deal with the complicated trial process. Between 2014–2015, 71–91% of misdemeanor defendants pled guilty before getting the opportunity to assert their innocence, according to Human Rights Watch. As a veteran criminal defense lawyer put it in a recent LA Times column: “Plead guilty, go home. Plead not guilty, stay in jail.”

We need to hold people accountable for their crimes, and we clearly need a system to ensure people don’t run away from their court dates. While Human Rights Watch suggests increasing “non-custody citations” rather than jailing low-level offenders, it’s clear the bail system itself needs an overhaul. The Justice Policy Institute suggest more thorough risk assessments and more intense supervision for those allowed to go home. In fact, around 25% of the current jail population would benefit from something like this.

Regardless, we can’t simply stand idly by while innocent people have their rights stripped away from them. We have forgotten the importance of “innocent until proven guilty.” It’s time we start living up to our own expectations of freedom.