THE BAIL SYSTEM in place across most of America's states and localities 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. Sustained by the financial and lobbying clout of the bail-bond industry, the system long seemed nearly impervious to reform. Now, with good reason, it is facing unprecedented scrutiny.
New Jersey, Kentucky, Maryland, Chicago, the District of Columbia and a number of other places are showing that real reforms to the bail system are possible. In California, lawmakers are getting serious, at last, about fixing a status quo stacked against people on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
On Capitol Hill, too, there are the makings of a bipartisan awakening on the issue. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) are co-sponsoring legislation that would offer modest financial incentives to places that adopt reforms to scrap a fixed regimen of money bail in favor of systems that weigh defendants' actual risk of flight or the peril their release would pose to communities.
No one is suggesting that violent or otherwise dangerous defendants be freed willy-nilly as they await trial. The thrust of reforms, actual and proposed, is to use sensible metrics — previous convictions, severity of pending charges — and, critically, 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 have opposed such reforms, insisting that only the financial tether of bail will ensure that defendants appear at trial as ordered. That argument is refuted by the experience of the District, which scrapped money bail for most defendants years ago. With the help of an effective pretrial service agency, which keeps track of those awaiting court dates and provides drug treatment and other support as needed, the vast majority of nonviolent defendants appear for trial. And in the process the District has achieved major savings by keeping jail costs under control.
It's true states and localities that reform will saddle states and localities with upfront expenses, especially to establish effective pretrial agencies. In California, a legislative analysis estimated that those costs could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In New Jersey, localities are expected to absorb a bill of some $50 million, in addition to costs the state itself is facing.
In the longer term, however, 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.
Even if the balance sheet tilts toward an additional burden for states and localities, bail reform needs to happen because it's the right thing to do. It is a disgrace for a civilized society to lock people up for no reason other than they lack the means to go free.
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