Tiger Woods spent about eight hours in police custody Monday after he was found asleep and apparently impaired behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz on a busy road near his home in Jupiter, Fla.
As a wealthy professional athlete, Woods enjoyed the treatment that the criminal justice system routinely bestows on men and women of standing. He was expeditiously released without bail on a promise to appear in court when summoned.
While Woods walked out the front door, those living on the margins would more likely have been shown to a jail cell unless they could produce bail money.
That dichotomy is the subject of a new analysis published today by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. The report calls on state lawmakers to restrain local bail protocols that pack city and county lockups with those who can’t afford to buy freedom.
One in every three men and women incarcerated in the U.S. is being held in a local jail, but that piece of the mass incarceration pie gets scant attention, says Joshua Aiken, author of “Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.”
“Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law,” Aiken writes in the analysis.
“And all too often state policymakers (and state reform advocates) ignore jails.”
Jail populations have tripled since the 1980s, driven up by pre-trial detentions and the subletting of local cells by state and federal authorities, a lucrative side business for sheriffs and other jail administrators in 25 states. In Louisiana, the national leader, more than half of the state prison population is housed in local jails.
About 11 million people churn through the nation’s 3,300 local lockups each year. About 720,000 are confined there at any given time, and about two-thirds of them are detained while awaiting adjudication of their cases because they can’t afford to pay bail.
In an interview with The Crime Report, Aiken said that jail detention can have cascading consequences for those who live on slim economic margins.
“Just a few days in jail can completely destabilize someone’s life,” he said. “People lose their jobs, miss rent payments, can’t coordinate someone to pick up their child after school, and can even lose custody of their children…Even a brief stay in jail can fuel a cycle of incarceration, marginalization and poverty.”
He said jail cells are filled with people already under duress: Two-thirds struggle with substance abuse; about one in six is (or was recently) homeless; more than half are black or Latino, and about one in 12 identifies as LGBT.
Advocates complain that cash bail policies create a bifurcated system—a quick-release track for the wealthy, like Tiger Woods, and a long slog behind bars for the poor.
A person without the means to pay bail or secure a bond in the same circumstances as Woods likely would have been forced to wait days for a court hearing to seek freedom—with no guarantee that a judge would agree.
Judges in many locales are bound by byzantine bail schedules. For example, the document is 135 pages long for Superior Court in San Diego, mandating bail amounts for everything from exceeding the limit of catfish ($25) to first-offense drunken driving ($2,500) to unlawful sale of rhinoceros horn ($5,000).
State legislators are well aware of the criticisms of money-based bail.
Bail policies in cities large and small have been amended in recent years, often prompted by lawsuits. Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, has filed bail challenges in nine states that so far have prompted reforms in cities in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.
New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, among many others, also have changed certain bail protocols to try to reduce jail populations, though none has gone as far as Washington, D.C., which essentially eliminated cash bails more than 20 years ago.
“We do see real momentum around this issue,” said Nancy Fishman of the Vera Institute of Justice. She added that many places have moved away from cash bail “without seeing negative consequences.”
“Many jurisdictions are facing overcrowded local jails, and the drivers of that growth are not increasing crime rates (which remain at historic lows) or more serious crime problems, but the increasing use of local jails to hold (for pretrial) individuals who do not pose a risk to the community and are not a high risk of failure to appear in court—but don’t have the money to get out while they await disposition,” Fishman told The Crime Report by email.
“Reviewing pretrial decision-making and the impact of cash bail is one of the first steps to identifying how to safely and effectively reduce jail populations.”
Mia Bird, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, noted that the Arnold Foundation is now working with 29 jurisdictions, including the states of Arizona, Kentucky and New Jersey, to expand the use of a risk assessment metric the foundation designed to help judges make informed decisions whether to detain or release a suspect.
Among others, Colorado and Maryland also have introduced bail reforms, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy is advocating a bail-reform proposal now working its way through that state’s legislative process.
In California, identical bills under consideration in both houses of the legislature would curb the use of bail schedules. The assembly bill may get a floor vote as early as this week.
“Bail reform efforts both in California and Connecticut would take important steps to rein in systems of money bail,” Aiken said. “California’s Bail Reform Act takes a number of significant steps to address the fact that the majority of people in their jails are legally innocent.”
But bail reform failed last year in California, and the 2017 bill is facing full-throated opposition from the bail bond industry, represented by Duane Chapman, who found fame in the “Dog the Bounty Hunter” TV series.
Chapman has appeared at public hearings to oppose reforms, and he is the voice of a fear-inducing robocall placed to 800,000 phone numbers in the state.
“You, the taxpayer, will pay to release these criminals,” Chapman warns. “Car thieves, burglars, sexual predators and repeat offenders will get out of jail with little accountability, and we will not be able to go after them when they run.”
The bail-reform bill’s sponsors say Chapman is using scare tactics on behalf of an industry with a financial interest in maintaining the status quo.
In his analysis, Aiken recommended systematic, statewide reforms that transcend piecemeal localized fixes.
Other recommendations included:
- Reclassifying many minor offenses as infractions or citations that do not impose detention;
- Diverting offenders with drug, alcohol or mental issues into treatment;
- Encouraging judges to use non-monetary sanctions rather than fines and fees;
- Initiating state pilot projects to test pretrial programs that offer alternatives to detention.
He also urged state lawmakers to consider whether subletting local jail cells detracts from the mission of city or county law enforcement.
At least 10 percent of those confined to local jails in 25 states are being held under contract for federal or state law enforcement agencies, which pay as much as $100 a day per prisoner.
In Louisiana, 52 percent of the state prison population is held under profit-making contracts with local jails. Parishes have pursued those contracts by building or expanding jails. Aiken also cited a high percentage of jail cell sublets in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.
“Contracts with federal and state authorities allow local sheriffs to generate revenue from jails that are rarely filled with ‘traditional jail inmates,’” Aiken wrote.
“Local officials can pad their law enforcement budgets by renting space…Many sheriffs, especially in recent years, have embraced the for-profit business of renting jail space to other authorities.”
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor with The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.