By Jared Keller
At this very moment, nearly 450,000 Americans are sitting in county jails not because they’ve been charged with a crime, but because they simply don’t have enough money to post bail. And according to a new study, America’s money bail system isn’t just unconstitutional—it’s a fundamental engine of injustice in the United States.
New data published by Columbia University researchers Arpit Gupta and Christopher Hansman and Ethan Frenchman from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender suggests that the use of money bail by judges to detain suspects ahead of a formal trial may actually be creating more criminals than it punishes. Analyzing court data from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the researchers found that “the presence of bail money increases the likelihood that a defendant is found guilty by about 12%,” as well as a 6 to 9 percent rise in recidivism in the respective cities.
This all results in a system that’s inefficient, potentially harmful to prisoners, and fundamentally burdensome to the U.S. criminal justice system. “Money bail imposes many costs on society — including those stemming from pretrial detention, convictions, and recidivism,” the researchers write, “yet we find no evidence that money bail results in positive outcomes, such as an increase in defendants’ rate of appearance at court.”
That the money bail system can potentially transform a “low-risk” American arrested for a misdemeanor into a repeat offender simply because they can’t pay bail runs counterintuitive to every impulse designed to abate the flood of taxpayers into the prison-industrial complex. While the recidivism rate for local jails is nowhere near as high as state and federal prisons (67.8 percent according to the National Institute of Justice), it still creates a carceral system where offenses perpetuate offenses, leading to a permanent underclass of people forever bound to the criminal justice system simply because of their inability to pay.
Picture: Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons