Every day of 2016, New York City held an average of 7,633 people in jail for pretrial detention. Pretrial detention means that these are people who have yet to be convicted of any crime, and who are, in one of our criminal justice system’s most important stipulations, presumed innocent. The United States is setting a new precedent for its civilians. If you’re poor, you get to face time in the slammer for the crime of not being able to post bail. Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” Because 3800 of New York’s jailed people are behind bars for one reason:
They don’t have enough money.
3800 of those jailed in New York do not have sufficient funds to make bail. Many of these defendants are held despite being accused of low-level, non-violent offenses like drug use. They’re held despite the fact that “pretrial detention disrupts people’s ability to work, pay rent, and take care of their families, and drastically increases the chances that one will be found guilty of a crime.” They’re held even though many may well be innocent, and many of those who are guilty pose no real risk to their community. And the tax payer gets to cover the expenses for these people who are presumably still innocent.
The New York Times detailed how these are not isolated events either, and that freedom is being systematically removed from Americans for no good reason. “In our society,” the Supreme Court has determined that, “liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” Yet across America, poor people are locked up for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Cash bail has become nothing more than a scam used to generate revenue to a failing state.
Detaining people simply because they cannot buy their freedom is unjust and unnecessary.
Pretrial detention makes it more likely defendants will take a plea deal. (More than 97 percent of federal criminal cases and 94 percent of state criminal cases in America are resolved this way, so “pretrial” detention is somewhat deceptively named.) Innocent people take plea deals significantly because they know going to trial risks a much longer prison sentence. If you’re stuck in pretrial detention because you can’t make bail, a plea deal that gets you home sooner is going to begin to look attractive regardless of your guilt.It gets worse. At New York’s notorious Riker’s Island Prison specifically, as many as 1,500 people at a time have been held for a year or longer pretrial. Shockingly, in 2015, we learned that six people had been jailed six years or more without being convicted of the crimes of which they were accused. That is unconscionable. –Rare
The current approach to bail is tantamount to punishing people for their poverty. But it’s punishing the rest of us along with them. If we could somehow measure the unseen disruption local economies suffer when thousands of people are suddenly plucked out of the workforce, the total economic cost would no doubt be astronomical. Plus the individual financial devastation inflicted on the families of those locked up and already living paycheck to paycheck are perhaps the hardest to comprehend. But keep repeating “we are free.”