Fearing for their political lives, many New York City officials are hastily backing away from previous pledges on bail reform. The measures had nullified the use of cash bail, except for certain violent crimes and other exceptional circumstances. It meant an end to people being imprisoned before trial for months or years, for the crime of not being able to post bail.
Now, it looks like cash bail is back on the menu, despite all the evidence suggesting it will be bad for law and order.
A new study, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited, examined data from 1.5 million people incarcerated in Kentucky between 2009 and 2018 to determine if cash bail is as effective and lifesaving as its proponents claim. The researchers’ findings were striking. Not only is the widespread use of cash bail ineffective, but actually counterproductive. This makes communities less safe.
It may be counterintuitive, but avoiding putting people behind bars until we have no other choice makes the public safer. In other words, imprisoning defendants before they have been convicted of a crime makes them more likely to re-offend and less likely to show up for trial. This therefore makes bail less effective and undermines law and order more broadly.
Think of it this way. If you were falsely accused of a crime, you would have the constitutional right as an American to a fair trial – a right for which you would be very grateful, no doubt. But how would your attitude toward the justice system change if you were then detained for months – or in some cases even years – before your trial began? You would have been put behind bars practically indefinitely without even having the possibility of expressing your defense in front of a jury made up of your peers.
Would finding oneself in this predicament inspire confidence in the justice system? Would that make you believe in his sincere desire to rehabilitate criminals and prioritize public safety above all else? Of course not. Unsurprisingly, forgoing the presumption of innocence and instead incarcerating people who have not been convicted of any crime stokes resentment in American institutions and inevitably leads to worse outcomes for everyone.
As if that were not enough, the cash bond system also represents disastrously inefficient public spending. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, every day as many as 400,000 people presumed innocent are held in temporary prisons across the country. They represent more than two thirds of the prison population. This means that your tax dollars are being spent to incarcerate thousands and thousands of people who do not need to be behind bars and who have not been convicted of any crime.
The crux of the matter is that the cash bond system decides who to release and who to detain based on wealth rather than danger to the community. Too often, people charged with non-violent offenses are incarcerated unnecessarily, at great cost to them and to the taxpayer. Bail reform does not mean allowing violent and dangerous offenders to roam freely, but rather limiting the use of remand to cases where it is truly deserved.
Despite the fears of New York officials, there is no data to suggest a link between bail reform and the recent spike in crime. But the people are always right, and since politicians prioritize self-preservation above almost everything else, they seem ominously willing to give in to the counterfactual narrative and forego bail reform.
It is a bad thing for American justice and for the wallets of taxpayers. This means that taxpayers’ money is used less efficiently and we are less secure. For the good of all of us, politicians need to put facts above sentiment and put the unnecessary overuse of cash bail in the history books.
Jason Reed is External Communications Manager at the British Conservation Alliance and contributor to Young Voices. He writes for the Times of London, the Telegraph, the Independent and many others. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.