On a typical day, Washington, D.C., releases 90 percent of people who have been arrested and held overnight. They pay no money, on a promise to return to court and meet conditions such as checking in with an officer or reporting for drug tests, the Washington Post reports. This is not how the system works in almost every other local and state court in the U.S., but it is how D.C. has operated for more than two decades. Nationally, about 47 percent of felony defendants with bonds remain jailed before their cases are heard because they cannot make bail. At the D.C. jail, no one is locked up because of an inability to pay. “We’ve proven it can work without money, but the whole country continues as if in a trance to do what we know does not work,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison.
The D.C. way of thinking tracks the federal system, which bars judges from setting financial barriers to keep someone locked up. Thousands of people across the nation sit in jail awaiting their day in court because they cannot afford to post money for release. Others, charged with the same crime but able to pay, go free. Efforts to eliminate or reduce use of money bonds and fixed bail payments through legislation in New Jersey and Colorado, and class-action lawsuits in eight states, have become part of a national movement to overhaul the criminal-justice system because of the impact on poor defendants. Officials in Jackson, Ms., agreed last month to stop using money bail in misdemeanor cases as part of a legal settlement. Several other cities in Mississippi have done the same. “There is no evidence you need money to get people back to court,” said Morrison. “It’s irrational, ineffective, unsafe and profoundly unfair.”