The Bias Towards the Wealthy in the Prison System

The American incarceration system relies heavily on money bail on which to operate. People who are arrested for and jailed for a variety of offenses may be granted the opportunity to post bail or bond and be released back into society before their next court appearances.

However, all evidence points to this system being unfairly skewed toward the wealthy and proverbially stacked against lower-income defendants. Reform advocates argue that the money bail system must be changed to level the playing field among everyone who is arrested for crimes, regardless of their income.

Benefiting the Wealthy

By all accounts, the money bail system in place today primarily benefits the wealthy and people with quick access to cash and collateral. This system requires that people who are granted bail pay a portion or all of it before being released from jail and sent back home before their next court date.

People with higher incomes, wealthier families, and access to assets like homes, cars, insurance policies, and other assets that can be liquidated find it easier to post bail or a bond and get out of jail. They do not have to sit behind bars to await their next court appearance.

However, people with lower incomes or no income at all cannot use the money bail system in the same way. They cannot afford to pay a bail bondsman to get them out of jail. They also have no money or assets to liquidate or put up as collateral to secure their bail or bond. With that, they have no choice but to sit in jail before their cases are heard in court.

Given this fact, it comes as no surprise to bail reform advocates that more than 70 percent of the people currently behind bars right now in the U.S. awaiting trial are lower-income defendants. Even more, the fact that they have yet to appear in court technically means that they are presumed innocent and not yet found guilty of any crime. Yet they languish behind bars, despite the presumption of innocence.

This disparity between the wealthy and lower-income jail population fuels the passions of bail reform advocates, who argue that all defendants, regardless of income, should be given the same treatment and opportunity after their arrests. They also argue that some defendants do not even deserve to sit in jail or be forced to post bail, particularly if they committed low-level offenses like trespassing.

Potential Bail Reform Legislation

This disparity in the money bail system has not gone unnoticed by some legislators across the country. In fact, a number of states are moving to change this system and make it more accessible and fair to people of more modest means.

For example, lawmakers in the state of New Jersey have proposed the Bail and Reform Speed Trial Act. This piece of legislation, if enacted, would eliminate the requirement of cash bail for people who are accused of and arrested for minor crimes, such as trespassing or shoplifting.

Further, the Chief Justice for Missouri’s Supreme Court has taken up the cause for bail reform. He has proposed the easing of unwarranted pre-trial incarcerations for some defendants in the state.

Finally, the state of Maryland’s Court of Appeals has proposed limiting the cash bail system. The attorney general in Maryland argues that this system violates the Constitutional due process of people who cannot afford to post cash bail.

These reforms suggest that change is on the horizon to make the money bail system fairer for all defendants. However, more work across the country must be done to address the thousands of lower-income defendants currently languishing behind bars. Advocates say this work will eliminate the money bail system favoring the wealthy and protect due process for everyone.