The money bail system is supposed to curb the risk of flight by requiring defendants to post bond in exchange for freedom before trial. But critics say the system allows defendants with money to go free even if they are dangerous, while keeping low-risk poor people in jail unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.
Some say that system routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away.
For those who cannot afford to post bail, even a short stay in jail can quickly unravel lives and families. Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly poor, many living paycheck to paycheck, and detention can cause job losses and evictions. Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when cases are ultimately dropped. And people in jail who are not guilty routinely accept plea deals simply to gain their freedom, leaving them with permanent criminal records.
Though money bail is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of jurisdictions, the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the face of recent research that questions its effectiveness, rising concerns about racial and income disparities in local courts, and a bipartisan effort to reduce the reliance on incarceration nationwide.
This year, the Department of Justice weighed in on a civil rights lawsuit challenging bail amounts based on solely on the charge, calling them unconstitutional. In several states, including Connecticut, New York and Arizona, chief justices or politicians are calling for overhauls of the bail system.
For a $75,000 bond in Baltimore, a commercial bondsman would typically charge 10 percent. Families typically have to scrape together 1 percent in cash, or $750, then go on a payment plan for the other 9 percent, or $6,750, more.
That is money they can never recover. Innocent or guilty, defendants can remain in hock to their bondsmen for years.