The Oppression of Bail
Mathew Barker- Benfield
Most people are quite familiar with the concept of bail; Law and Order attorneys arguing for or against the possibility of bail for some suspected criminal, often at values of $10,000 or more. The concept behind bail is that individuals accused of a crime either a) need to be kept in jail until their trial, or b) need to pay some amount of money as a guarantee that they will go to their trial, where they will be given back their money. Of course, television obscures a huge part of the politics behind bail, bail bond agencies, and the often little amounts of money that comes between an individual and their freedom. The fact of the matter is, more than 500,000 inmates in jail today are there not because they are guilty, but because they are unable to pay bail, and so must wait in jail for months at a time until their trial, causing huge emotional and financial hardship on them, their families, and their communities.
Most people aren’t aware of the huge number of prisoners currently incarcerated and awaiting trial, unable to pay bail as little as $50. In fact, the United States spends over $9 billion dollars a year housing them. Doug Currington, an inmate awaiting trial in Lubbock, Texas, tried stealing a television from Wal-mart while high on methamphetamine. His bail is $150, and he has been in jail for 75 days, at a cost to taxpayers of over $2,850. Even subtracting the inhumanity of Mr.Currington’s situation, one wonders how such glaring inefficiencies could exist in our prison system, especially during budget crises in many states.
One way of answering this curiosity is by following the money. In the case of bail, the trail leads to bail bondsmen. In exchange for a nonrefundable payment worth 10% of the total value of the bond, bail bond agencies will pay your bond. As soon as you go to your trial, the bond is given back, netting the agency a handsome 10% profit. Many of those who are arrested and awaiting trial assume that one must work through a bondsman in order to pay the court, not realizing that they are able to pay bonds directly. Bondsmen don’t even really run the risk of losing their money if their client does not show up for trial, because they only pay a fine worth 5% of the bond, which is worth less than the 10% fee they charged. Politicians don’t rally against the agencies because it is political suicide to appear “soft” on criminals, and because the bond agencies are incredibly powerful political lobby with influence in nearly every state. These lobbyists fight against programs such as pre-trial release that would cut into their profits, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives that are ruined by being incarcerated. The men and women often lose all their belongings, their apartment or home, and worst of all, have a much higher chance of a receiving jail time instead of probation, even a longer sentence, compared to those that make bail, yet another regressive policy that extends the cycle of poverty generation to generation. Pre-trial worker Steve Henderson argues “The only thing that jail is good for is to keep the dangerous people in the community away from the people who don’t pose a risk.” Justice Department figures suggest a different story, showing that nearly 2/3rds of all inmates are non-violent petty offenders who are there because they can’t afford bail. Whose Justice is really being served?