The bail system in most of the U.S. “is patently unfair on its face, penalizing poor (and disproportionately minority) defendants who cannot afford to pay their way out of jail while rewarding others with the means to win their freedom as they await trial,” editorializes the Washington Post. The system is facing unprecedented scrutiny. New Jersey, Kentucky, Maryland, Chicago, the District of Columbia and other places are showing that real reforms to the bail system are possible. In Congress, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) are co-sponsoring legislation that would offer financial incentives to places that adopt reforms to scrap money bail in favor of systems that weigh defendants’ actual risk of flight or the peril their release would pose to communities.
No one suggests that dangerous defendants be freed willy-nilly as they await trial. The thrust of reforms is to use sensible metrics — previous convictions, severity of pending charges — and effective pretrial service agencies to determine whether to incarcerate people as they await trial and to ensure that those who are released show up for court dates. Some prosecutors and police oppose reforms, insisting that only bail will ensure that defendants appear at trial. That argument is refuted in Washington, D.C., which scrapped most money bail years ago. With the help of an effective pretrial service agency, the vast majority of nonviolent defendants appear for trial. Reform will saddle states and localities with upfront expenses. In California, a legislative analysis estimated that costs could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In New Jersey, localities are expected to absorb a bill of $50 million. In the longer term, bail reform will produce substantial savings by reducing incarcerated populations, cutting corrections staffing and eliminating the need to build more jails to house pretrial detainees, the Post says.