Over 60 percent of people in jail in the United States are being detained while they await trial. They’re not serving time as a punishment. They’ve been found guilty of no crime. Instead, in the majority of cases, money is the barrier to freedom. They languish in jail because the bail amount far exceeds what they and their families can afford. Their poverty alone imprisons them. The result is a two-tiered system of justice: one for those who have and one for those who do not.
The inability to afford bail forces people to plead guilty just to get out of jail, even when they are innocent, or in cases that are weak or involve unlawful arrests. If they don’t, they may spend months behind bars awaiting trial. And while pleading guilty lets them go home, they carry a criminal record for life. Poverty robs them of the presumption of innocence and their right to a fair trial.
The damage doesn’t end with a guilty plea. Bail pushes already-struggling families further onto the margins of society. Even a short stint in jail can mean the loss of a job, eviction or deportation. Those who can scrape together the money may be forced to choose between paying bail and paying rent, or buying any number of things they and their families depend on. Bail destroys lives.
We see the stark inequities bail causes every day in New York City. Rikers Island is filled with presumptively innocent individuals locked up solely because they can’t afford bail. Bail is a primary driver of mass incarceration, wastes public funds and intensifies racial and economic inequalities here in New York and across the nation.