People Stuck in Jail Because They're Poor Have New Hope

Potential pretrial reforms for those locked up in Nashville, Atlanta, Philly, or the Golden State.


Pop Nukoonrat / Dreamstime.com

If you're arrested in Nashville, you can pay your bail to be freed. If you can't afford bail, you can wait in jail. But they charge you for that as well: $44 a day.

Now Councilmember Freddie O'Connell has introduced a resolution to end the daily fees, which he describes as a "non-sentenced form of financial punishment." These prisoners have only been charged with crimes, not convicted. And if they cannot afford bail, they're unlikely to be able to pay jail fees.

And no, the fees aren't levied to cover the costs of jailing people. The money actually goes into the general fund and can be spent on anything in the budget.

Fortunately, Nashville is apparently not pushing very hard to collect them. As the Nashville Scene notes, judges waive millions of dollars in jail fees each year, and even when they don't, the city only actually collects a small percentage of the fees. Still, for fiscal year 2015, Nashville extracted more than $1.5 million from people who had been merely been accused, not convicted, of crimes.

The effect is yet more financial pressure pushing poor citizens to accept whatever prosecutors offer if it will help get them out of jail, thus increasing the likelihood of they'll end up with criminal records that follow them around. The Pretrial Justice Institute has calculated that people who end up stuck in jail because they cannot afford bail are more likely to have their lives disrupted after just a few days—losing their jobs and incomes—and are therefore more likely to plead guilty.

Nashville isn't the only place seeing a push to reform mechanisms that leave people who haven't been convicted stuck behind bars. This month Philadelphia's City Council voted in favor of a resolution to end the practice of cash bail in Pennsylvania. City Lab notes that a third of the people sitting in Pennsylvania's jails are there because they cannot afford bail. The city's new district attorney, Larry Krasner, supports such a change. (UPDATE: Krasner announced this afternoon he would end the practice of seeking cash bail for low-level offenses)

Likewise, Atlanta's new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, signed an ordinance this month that eliminates cash bail for a host of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Local activists had drawn attention to the oppressive and thoughtless use of cash bail in the court system that had left a homeless man in jail for three months because he couldn't afford a $200 bond for soliciting donations in a roadway.

And yesterday in California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his office will not appeal a state court's decision ordering a new bail hearing for a 63-year-old man who has been in jail since May, unable to cover his $350,000 bail. The man, Robert Humphrey, is charged with entering an apartment, threatening the resident, and stealing a $5 bottle of cologne.

In a press conference, Becerra declared his support for changes to California's bail system so that decisions are based on "danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket." A legislative effort to reform California's pretrial services and minimize cash bail stalled last year, but a new push is underway. If it passes, California will join New Jersey, which implemented a pretrial assessment system that did away with cash bail last year, and Alaska, which did the same at the start of 2018 (and are now working out some kinks in the system).

NEXT: D.C. Public School Chief Resigns After Sneaking His Kids Into Top School

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  1. It’s simple – if you don’t want to go to jail don’t break the law.

    1. Or more simply: If you don’t want to go to American jail then don’t live in America.

    2. You just broke the law. I don’t how, but I know you did and with millions of dollars to prosecute you, I’m sure I can prove it.

      1. If making millions of Reason.com/blog readers laugh out loud is illegal then lock me up and throw away the key!

        1. There are several problems with that statement, Crusty.

        2. Those charges are dismissed every day.

    3. If you don’t want to break the law don’t be alive.

      Super simple stuff.

    4. But these people haven’t been…oh, wait, it’s Crusty, ha ha, you had me fooled for a second.

  2. First impression is that charging prisoners for their incarceration seems unconstitutional to me.

    Tennessee is not setting bail at excessive amounts which violates the 8th Amendment and then charge defendants being held under a presumption of innocence unless they are convicted.

    The 8th Amendment even prohibits excessive fines.

  3. Setting low cash bail amounts and allowing bail bondsmen to still provide bonds for those who cannot afford it is probably the best way.

    If people don’t show up for court after being given notice of court date, then bail could be denied.

    Beats what they do now which is set bail excessively high so you have to get a bail bonds, you lose the 10% which can amount to thousands, sometimes the courts make up court appearances without notifying you to revoke your cash bail, and/or never set bail in the place.

  4. This problem is not what it seems. The problem is not that people have to get bail or in some cases can’t come up with the money. That is going to happen in any bail system and the only way to stop it is just let everyone go on ROR bonds, which would likely cause a lot more crime.

    The problem here is that thanks to the drug war and the proliferation of laws and the criminals said laws create, our justice system is completely overloaded such that everyone in it is denied the right to a speedy trial. If we had a functioning justice system that gave people actual speedy trial rights, being denied bail would not be much an issue since people would either be acquitted and walk away or convicted and rightfully serving their time in a short amount of time. Bail is not the real problem here. It only appears to be the problem. The problem is no one can get a trial or access to justice, be they victim or accused in anything short of months or years.

    1. Even with speedy trials, being denied bail would still be a big issue. If you are arrested on Saturday, have a preliminary hearing on Monday that sets the trial on Wednesday (leaving only 48 hours for the lawyers on both sides to get ready, including all investigation and discovery), and are acquitted and freed Wednesday afternoon, you’ve still been absent from work for three days and are fired.

  5. If you don’t want to go to jail don’t be poor trash.

    1. You think you are kidding but the truth is you are not. We have created a giant web of criminal laws that does nothing but ensnare people who in the past were not successful but still managed to live on the fringes of society. Almost all criminal defendants are functionally illiterate. Some of them are no shit career criminals who need to be in prison. Some are people who are criminals but are only so because they made a mistake and will leave the system never to return. But anywhere from half to two-thirds of them are people who have poor impulse control, poor judgment and lack the understanding of cause and effect. These people are no threat to anyone but themselves in most cases but are tailor made to run afoul of the criminal justice system and never get out of it. We have a criminal justice system that makes war on the poor and the stupid.

      1. “war on the poor and the stupid”

        Modify “stupid” to “uneducated” to make a more compelling argument. Ignorance is a huge liability to any free society and a major asset to any entity desiring power.

        1. It is more than just being uneducated. Talk to people who work in the criminal justice field. They will all tell you that most people in the system have very low IQs and a very difficult time understanding cause and effect. They really don’t understand how events relate together and how what they do is connected to consequences. People really are stupid.

          1. “They really don’t understand how events relate together and how what they do is connected to consequences.”

            Who do they think they are, cops?

        2. Just to give one example, think of all of the people who can’t make it through probation because they can’t keep from failing a drug test. That happens all of the time. These people know they are going to be tested, know that if they test positive they are going back to jail and still get high anyway. And don’t tell me it is the result of some physical addiction. Most of them pop hot for pot, which is not physically addictive. Yeah, I know pot should be illegal. But, it takes a real lack of understanding of actions and consequences to know you are going to jail if you smoke pot and still do it anyway. And that happens every day. There is nothing you can do with someone like that except leave them the fuck alone as long as they don’t harm anyone. The problem is our laws are made by a bunch of rule-loving, law-abiding upper middle-class white people who think everyone is just like them and can’t understand that some people are just non hacckers and trying to make them any different is a fool’s errand.

          1. A perfectly educated person can be confused about their rights the first time they’re stopped for DUI, especially considering they’re permitted to be interrogated and their body chemicals analyzed without the help of counsel.

            1. Local DUI lawyers all run ads to the effect of “If you’re pulled over, then STFU”. Difficult thing for anyone in that situation.

              1. It’s like trying to remember the capital of Zimbabwe on a pop quiz. And you’re drunk.

            2. You figured it out by the 4th or 5th time you got caught, right?

              1. You say that like some kind of terrible judgmental nanny-state fuckface.

    2. And if you are poor trash, then stop being litter

  6. Between this and the mandatory blood work when you’re accused of DUI, Tennessee is looking more and more like a top 10 tyranny in the USA.

    1. Why anyone would sit still for a involuntary blood draw is beyond me.

      The nurse cannot jam the needle in your vein if your moving and even in cuffs, you can move.

      If they don’t want to play by the rules, like get a warrant based upon probable cause to draw a substance from inside your body while at the same time you have the right not to incriminate yourself, then fuck them.

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