When de­fen­dants can’t post bail, ev­ery­one pays the price.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY CHRIS IN­GRA­HAM chris.in­gra­ham@wash­post.com

At any given time, roughly 480,000 peo­ple sit in Amer­ica’s lo­cal jails await­ing their day in court, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate by the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Pri­son Stud­ies. Th­ese are peo­ple who have been charged with a crime but not con­victed. They re­main in­no­cent in the eyes of the law.

Some are vi­o­lent crim­i­nals who need to await their tri­als be­hind bars in the in­ter­est of public safety— mur­der­ers, rapists and the like. But most (three quar­ters of them, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures) are non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers, ar­rested for traf­fic vi­o­la­tions or prop­erty crimes or drug pos­ses­sion. And many of them will be found not guilty. A 2013 Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics re­port found that one-third of felony de­fen­dants in the na­tion’s largest coun­ties were not ul­ti­mately con­victed of any crime.

The same re­port found that de­fen­dants who were de­tained be­fore trial waited a me­dian of 68 days in jail. Of­ten, that is sim­ply be­cause they can’t af­ford to post bail. A 2013 anal­y­sis by the Drug Pol­icy Al­liance found that was the case for nearly 40 per­cent of New Jer­sey’s jail pop­u­la­tion.

The idea of bail makes a lot of in­tu­itive sense: When some­one is charged with a crime, you make them put down a de­posit to en­sure they show up for trial. If they don’t put the money down, they have to wait in jail. But in prac­tice this means that plenty of peo­ple sit be­hind bars not be­cause they are danger­ous or be­cause they are a flight risk, but sim­ply be­cause they can’t come up with the cash.

For low-in­come peo­ple, the con­se­quences of a pre-trial detention, even a brief one, can be dis­as­trous. Miss too much work and you’re out of a job. Fall be­hind on your rent and you’re out of a home, too. Plus, in many cases, th­ese peo­ple will even­tu­ally be found not guilty.

For rea­sons like this, some civil rights re­form­ers ad­vo­cate abol­ish­ing bail. Maya Schen­war, edi­tor in chief of the in­de­pen­dent news site Truthout, says bail poli­cies are tan­ta­mount to “lock­ing peo­ple up for be­ing poor.” HBO’s John Oliver re­cently noted that while a poor per­son might not be able to post a $1,000 bail for a mi­nor in­frac­tion, a wealthy mur­der sus­pect like Robert Durst can post a $250,000 bail and walk free.

Elim­i­nat­ing bail is not as rad­i­cal as it sounds. The Dis­trict ef­fec­tively stopped us­ing bail in the late 1960s. In­stead, the city’s Pretrial Ser­vices Agency de­ter­mines the best op­tion for deal­ing with de­fen­dants be­fore they go to court. Ac­cord­ing to the agency, 12 to 15 per­cent of de­fen­dants are held be­fore trial for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing flight risk or dan­ger to oth­ers. Oth­ers are re­leased. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of re­leased de­fen­dants, 88 per­cent of them, make all sched­uled court ap­pear­ances and re­main ar­rest-free while await­ing trial.

If you’re not con­vinced by the civil rights ar­gu­ment, con­sider the eco­nomic one: We spend about $17 bil­lion dol­lars an­nu­ally to keep in­no­cent peo­ple locked up as they await trial.

Here’s how I ar­rived at that num­ber. U.S. tax­pay­ers spent $26 bil­lion on county and mu­nic­i­pal jails in 2012, the most re­cent year for which the Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics has data. And 64 per­cent of those in jail are await­ing trial, thus the es­ti­mate that we’re spend­ing about $17 bil­lion each year on pre-trial de­ten­tions.

That’s just a back-of-the-en­ve­lope es­ti­mate, but it gives us a sense. For com­par­i­son, that amount is a lit­tle less than NASA’s an­nual bud­get.

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