Nationwide, an estimated 450,000 pretrial defendants are in jail because they cannot afford to pay bond. Prison reform advocates argue that using bail to hold people before their cases are resolved perpetuates cycles of poverty, incarceration, and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Studies have found that black arrestees are assigned higher bail amounts than white arrestees with similar charges and criminal histories, and are more likely to remain in jail awaiting trial. Other research indicates that those who detained before trial were three times as likely to be sentenced to prison than those who paid bail. They also were more likely to be arrested again later.
Jurisdictions across the U.S. seem to be taking this research to heart. In Illinois, lawmakers have introduced to outlaw money bonds, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx moved to release inmates with bonds of $1,000 or less who could not afford to pay them. New Jersey and Maryland dramatically overhauled the way they use cash-based bail this year, and other states promise to follow suit. Facing lawsuits and tight budgets, states and local governments have started to rethink the use of money to keep people in jail. “We’re really at an amazing moment with bail,” says Larry Schwartztol of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School. “There is a really extraordinary wave of momentum to change in pretty fundamental ways [how] bail works.” There has been a flood of lawsuits filed in the past two years, supported by the Obama Justice Department, challenging the use of bail to keep poor people in jail. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed skepticism about past efforts on jail reform, but the shift to a new administration is unlikely to affect state and local the changes that are taking place around bail reform, experts say.