Moving Forward (Young Voices radio show): Bail Reform

Bail reform is essential to preserve liberty – and it’s good for law and order too. I joined Moving Forward, the Young Voices radio show, to discuss the overuse of cash bail.

Here’s my Yahoo News article on the subject:

Yahoo News: Bail reform is good for law and order

This article was published on Yahoo News.

It was also featured by other outlets including the Charleston Mail-Gazette (West Virginia), the Deming Headlight (New Mexico), the Nashua Telegraph (New Hampshire) and the Jacksonville Journal-Courier (Illinois).

Fearing for their political lives, many elected officials in New York are hurriedly backing down from previous commitments on bail reform. The measures had rolled back the use of cash bail, except for some violent crimes and other exceptional circumstances. That meant an end to jailing people before their trial for months or years, for the crime of being unable to pay their bail.

Now, it seems cash bail is back on the menu, despite all the evidence suggesting that will be a bad thing for law and order.

A new study, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited, examined data from 1.5 million people booked into jail in Kentucky between 2009 and 2018 to investigate whether cash bail is as effective and vital as its supporters claim. The researchers’ findings were striking. Not only is the widespread use of cash bail ineffectual but in fact counterproductive. It makes communities less safe.

It might be counter-intuitive, but avoiding putting people behind bars until we have no other choice makes the public safer. In other words, jailing defendants before they have been found guilty of any crime makes them more likely to reoffend and less likely to turn up for their trial. It 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 you would be very grateful for, no doubt. But how would your attitude to the justice system change if you were then detained for months — or in some cases even years — before your trial has begun? You would have been put behind bars practically indefinitely without even the chance to voice your defense before a jury of your peers.

Would finding yourself in that predicament inspire confidence in the justice system? Would it make you believe in its sincere desire to rehabilitate criminals and prioritize public safety above all else? Of course not. Unsurprisingly, foregoing the presumption of innocence and instead incarcerating people who have been found guilty of no crime stokes resentment in American institutions and inevitably leads to worse outcomes for everyone.

As if that were not enough, the cash bail system also represents disastrously inefficient government spending. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, on any given day, a whopping 400,000 people presumed innocent are held in pretrial jails across the country. They make up more than two-thirds of jail populations. That means your tax dollars are being spent incarcerating thousands upon thousands of people who have no need to be behind bars and have not been found guilty of any crime.

The heart of the problem is that the cash bail system decides who to release and who to detain based on wealth, rather than danger to the community. Too often, those charged with non-violent offenses are incarcerated entirely unnecessarily, at great cost to them and the taxpayer. Bail reform does not mean allowing violent, dangerous offenders to walk free, but rather limiting the use of pretrial detention to cases when it is truly merited.

Despite the fears of New York officials, there is no data whatsoever to suggest a link between bail reform and the recent spike in crime. But the populace is always right, and since politicians prioritize self-preservation above almost everything else, they seem worryingly willing to give in to the counter-factual narrative and back down on bail reform.

That is a bad thing for the American justice system and for taxpayers’ wallets. It means tax dollars are used less effectively and it means we are less safe. For all our sakes, politicians must put facts above feelings and consign the unnecessary overuse of cash bail to the history books.

International Policy Digest: Cash Bail Leads to Jail Overcrowding – And That’s a Waste of Your Tax Dollars

This article was published by the International Policy Digest.

On any given day, an estimated 445,000 people are incarcerated in American jails before their trial has even begun. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, pretrial detainees represent more than two-thirds of jail populations.

Throughout the pandemic, disgruntled Americans have written countless thousands of words about excessive government spending and wasteful use of tax dollars. But one of the most egregious examples of wildly inefficient use of government money is the millions and millions of dollars spent each year on holding people in jail before their trial.

The American justice system promises a presumption of innocence before trial. Why, then, are so many resources expended on incarcerating those presumed innocent pretrial, in much the same way as they would be thrown behind bars if they had just been found guilty?

Cash bail is the heart of the problem. Judges often decide that defendants must fork out substantial bail sums if they want to remain free before their trial. If they are unable to pay up – which happens very often – they end up behind bars, sometimes for years, awaiting their trial. Every defendant who finds themselves in jail before their trial is an additional strain on America’s purse strings.

Holding people in jail before their trial is bad for justice outcomes, too. According to a new study, “The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention Revisited,” time spent in custody pretrial has no consistent public benefit. For example, increasing the amount of time spent in pretrial detention was consistently associated with an increased chance of rearrest.

Perhaps worst of all, the current system does not even achieve what it sets out to do – encouraging defendants to turn up at court. The research, based on data from almost 1.5 million people booked into jail in Kentucky between 2009 and 2018, found no relationship between the amount of time spent in pretrial detention and the odds of a defendant failing to appear in court.

The cash bail system, then, leads to overcrowding of jails and gratuitous wastage of tax dollars. It is harmful to both the defendant and the wider public and it represents yet another unnecessary logistical challenge for the already stretched American justice system.

The system badly needs rethinking. Firstly, we must stop so readily jailing people during the pretrial phase. Those who pose a serious threat to public safety must, of course, be kept behind bars but those cases should be treated as the exception, not the rule. There is no reason for you and me to pay, through our taxes, to incarcerate many thousands of people who do not need to be in jail and may yet be found innocent.

There are plenty of ways to get around the all-or-nothing approach of cash bail versus incarceration. For instance, other countries around the world have found creative ways of keeping tabs on pretrial defendants, such as having police regularly knock on their door to ensure they have not left town or asking them to sign in weekly at a police station. Even electronic tags are a much more efficient, less harmful alternative to pretrial jail time.

It is imperative we educate judges, prosecutors, and the public on how pretrial detention undermines community safety and wastes government resources. The current system is unnecessarily costly and does not make us any safer. We must reconsider it.