Why the Bail Bond System Needs Reform


Two principles should underpin our approach to the development of public policy: fairness and effectiveness. Tragically, the cash-based bail bond system used throughout much of the United States fails on both counts.

Not only are secured bonds (where one must pay in order to be released) inherently unfair to those who cannot afford the cost, but the data show that they are no more effective than non-financial bonds at achieving public safety, or in ensuring that those charged will appear in court.

The cash-based model represents a tiered system of justice based on personal wealth, rather than risk, and is in desperate need of reform.

Although some are quick to lay blame to the for-profit commercial surety industry for this phenomenon, they are simply deriving income from a broken system. Ultimately, those who seek to reform a broken system such as this should target the system’s engineers, not its profiteers.

An op-ed published last month in The Crime Report correctly pointed out that debates about pretrial policies are decades-old. Relatively new, however, is research showing conclusively that jailing low-risk defendants— often those who cannot afford to pay their bond— actually increases their likelihood to reoffend in the future.

Additionally, evidence suggests that an alarming percentage of those classified as the most dangerous are simply purchasing their release under the current system. As a result, low-risk individuals become high-risk after being unnecessarily detained—while high-risk offenders often walk free.

There is no shortage of data to support the need for substantive reform, including the proven effectiveness of incorporating empirically derived risk assessment tools within pretrial decision-making.

A comprehensive study by the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) of nearly 2,000 arrests in Colorado found that unsecured bonds are as effective as secured bonds at achieving public safety and ensuring that the defendant appears in court.

Secured bonds also lead to significantly higher pretrial detention rates at taxpayer expense. Thus there is a massive cost differential between pretrial risk assessment and the status quo. In addition to the human toll the current system takes by destroying families and communities without means, it unnecessarily turns taxpayers into tax-takers.

In response to the dysfunction and inefficiencies in the current pretrial justice system, several states across the country have taken the lead in implementing creative solutions to the broken, cash-based model.

Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia, among others, have deployed validated pretrial risk assessment in the courts. These tools, developed and refined from large data sets and tested for their ability to predict pretrial misconduct, provide a rational alternative to arbitrary decision-making in the release process.

Oregon and Nebraska are among the states that have successfully enacted protocols to provide supervision and monitoring of defendants released by the court, remind them of their upcoming court dates, and alert them of other court orders.

These efforts have reduced the rate of defendants failing to appear in court, leading to significant cost savings for courts and law enforcement.

Further, Maryland and Wisconsin are part a growing number of states that have passed laws to expand the use of citation releases by law enforcement in lieu of custodial arrests for non-violent offenses. Custodial arrests are enormously expensive and too often result in the unnecessary detention of low-risk individuals.

The public overwhelmingly supports reforming our pretrial systems.

In addition, the weak economy and budgetary pressure on local and state governments demand that we make the best use possible of our tax dollars. According to a recent survey commissioned by the Public Welfare Foundation, seven in ten voters nationwide support replacing cash bonds with risk assessment and supervision, including nearly half (47 percent) who strongly back the proposal. This support traverses partisan, regional, racial, and other demographic lines.

Important stakeholders such as police chiefs, judges and elected county officials have also been vocal in their support for fixing this broken model.

We have an outdated pretrial justice system in the U.S. that places excessive burdens on taxpayers, and fails in its most basic responsibility to be fair and effective. Worse, it is actually increasing crime by turning low-risk defendants into high-risk offenders.

In the interests of justice, public safety, and cost efficiency, it is imperative that we come together and work to improve it, now.

Timothy Murray is the Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. He welcomes comments from readers.

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