How American taxpayers are spending billions to keep innocent men behind bars

Here’s where your money is going.

As talk show host John Oliver explained in a segment last month, America’s bail bond system discriminates against low-income Americans who can’t afford to make bail. “Jail can do for your actual life what being in a marching band can do for your social life,” Oliver quipped. “Even if you’re just in for a little while, it can destroy you.”

After going viral, Oliver’s video is now returning to the news cycle by virtue of New York City’s recent announcement that they will gradually start replacing bail with various other supervising options for low-risk, nonviolent defendants. It’s a step that the New York Civil Liberties Union’s senior attorney Corey Stoughton referred to as a “tremendous development” that could be the first step toward outright abolition of bail.

Let’s hope Stoughton is right: Until bail is abolished, American taxpayers will be spending billions of dollars on a system that reduces low-income citizens, and particularly racial minorities, to second-class citizenship in the eyes of our legal system.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio explained in a statement. “Money bail is a problem because—as the system currently operates in New York—some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose.”

Certainly this was what happened with Kalief Browder, a New York City teenager who spent more than three years in custody without ever standing trial because he couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail. Ever since it came out that Browder’s recent suicide was due in part to the trauma of his experience, de Blasio has been under pressure to reform the system that wrongly held him in the first place. 

Until bail is abolished, American taxpayers will be spending billions of dollars on a system that reduces low-income citizens, and particularly racial minorities, to second-class citizenship in the eyes of our legal system.

According to a report by the Associated Press, de Blasio’s $17.8 million plan will start gradually, allowing judges “to replace money-bail for about 3,000 low-risk defendants [out of 45,500 in New York City] with supervision options including regular check-ins, text-message reminders, and connecting them with drug or behavioral therapy.”

Of course, this issue is hardly limited to New York City. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (an English penological research group), the problem of bail-bond discrimination has reached the level of a humanitarian crisis—roughly 480,000 Americans spend time in jail every year simply because they can’t afford to make bail. 

This is partially attributable to the fact that, despite only accounting for five percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners. Indeed, although a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice (a non-profit that focuses on justice policy) found that although crime rates haven’t been as low as they are today since the 1970s, America is sending more people to jail than ever—11.7 million in 2013 compared to only 6 million in 1983, with the average incarceration period rising from 14 days to 23 days within the same period. 

As a result, America’s local jails hold more than 700,000 people on any given day (one-quarter of whom are there solely for drug-related offenses) and keeps them there for longer than ever: 23 days in 2013 compared to only 14 days in 1983.

While it may not receive as much attention as racial profiling, the bail-bond system also plays a significant role in exacerbating the racial inequalities that pervade our criminal justice system. “Nationally, African Americans are jailed at almost four times the rate of white Americans,” the Vera report found. “Despite making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans account for 36 percent of the jail population,” with Latinos also being disproportionately represented among prison inmates. 

This is partially because of the income gap that separates white people from racial minorities, making it harder to both pay bail and afford legal counsel. As Laura Shin of Forbes reported, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.” 

In addition, our criminal justice system has a pattern of being harsher on people of color than white folks: Racial minorities are stopped by police at much higher rates, are more likely to go to prison than whites for drug-related offenses despite both groups using illegal substances at comparable rates, and (in the case of black people) receive sentences that are 10 percent longer on average than those received by white people for the same crimes.

Even if you aren’t swayed by the humanitarian dimension of the bail-bond crisis, there is also a fiscal element to consider. As Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post pointed out, Americans taxpayers spend approximately $17 billion each year—almost as much as our budget for NASA—to keep people locked up who haven’t been convicted of a crime. This money then goes into the pockets of special interest groups who benefit from the status quo. 

Despite only accounting for five percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners.

Commercial bail bondsmen, for example, lobby aggressively for laws that force judges to set bail and lobby against pre-trial release programs that don’t require bail. The result is that bail bonds are now used in more than 40 percent of all felony cases. 

Similarly, private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group profit considerably from the bail-bond system. Although there isn’t much evidence that private prisons actually save taxpayers money, they lobby to criminalize more activities and increase sentencing, including by requiring bail-bond rates. Thanks to their efforts, the industry of constructing and maintaining for-profit prisons is now worth $70 billion.

Considering that our bail-bond system discriminates against Americans from low income and/or non-white backgrounds, it could only be justified if it served some constructive purpose—but, in fact, the exact opposite is true. 

As Ingraham explains, Washington, D.C. stopped using bail in the 1960s. Although the city’s Pretrial Services Agency did decide to hold roughly 12 percent of defendants (usually because they were flight risks or a danger to others), it released the other 88 percent. The overwhelming majority of these defendants made their scheduled court appearances and did not get into further legal trouble while awaiting trial.

In light of all this, it’s difficult to come up with a logical argument in favor of maintaining our current bail-bond system. And if we’re serious about reforming America’s justice system, we shouldn’t forget about the institutions that continue to ensure that the United States remains unequal.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected]

Photo via Randy Heinitz/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.