More cities and states are reducing their reliance on cash bail, rejecting the historic notion that money should determine whether arrested individuals are locked up until trial, the Wall Street Journal reports. The movement threatens to deal the most severe blow to the multibillion-dollar bail-bonds industry since it began in the 1800s. New Jersey this year eliminated most cash bail, requiring judges to detain or release defendants before trial based on their risk to public safety, rather than their ability to pay. New Mexico voters passed a similar amendment to the state constitution last year. In California and Texas, where courts have set the highest bail amounts, lawmakers have introduced bills that would significantly change bail systems. Starting July 1, judges in Maryland must consider alternatives to cash bail for nonviolent defendants.
Jeffrey Clayton of the American Bail Coalition, representing insurance companies that underwrite bail bonds, said it would be a “make-or-break year” for cash bail. This year, he traveled to state capitals in California, Nevada, Connecticut, New York, Colorado and Texas in 11 days to oppose overhaul efforts. He hopes the Trump administration will slow momentum for reform by cutting Justice Department grants that aid experiments with new bail systems. The bail-bond industry argues that a money deposit is the best way to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court. Driving the reform is a growing belief that suspects are unfairly incarcerated solely because they can’t afford bail amounts as low as $100, creating overcrowded jails at high cost to taxpayers. Others contend reforms will prevent those charged with violent crimes from paying their way out. Nearly two dozen lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of setting cash bail without considering an individual’s ability to pay it. Last month, a federal judge ordered Harris County, Tx., to stop detaining misdemeanor arrestees if they can’t afford bail, finding the practice violated the Constitution’s equal-protection rights against wealth-based discrimination.