Bernie Sanders Introduces Bill to Eliminate Cash Bail

"Our destructive and unjust cash bail process is part of our broken criminal justice system and must be ended."


Between 400,000 and 500,000 people are behind bars but haven't been convicted—they're just awaiting their day in court. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is unveiling legislation today to help them, by ending the use of money bail on the federal level and nudging the states to do the same.

The No Money Bail Act would prohibit the federal government from using any payment of money as a condition of pretrial release for criminal cases. It would call for grants to develop alternatives to money bail and to improve pretrial practices with the aim of reducing the number of people detained in jail prior to trial. And it would push states to come along with the shift by denying them access to Justice Department grants if they continue using money bail.

A House companion bill was introduced by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). He has intrduced similar bills in previous sessions that haven't gone far. This time he argued, in a prepared statement, that the

money bail system is irrational and dangerous. People who are not at high risk but are poor remain incarcerated, while people who may be dangerous are set free if they have the funds. It's maddening to see that those with money can buy their freedom while poor defendants languish behind bars while awaiting trial. I'm grateful Sen. Sanders is introducing a bill that moves to end our justice system's reliance on money bail. I previously introduced legislation in the House that addresses this issue and I look forward to working with Senator Sanders. The money bail system warrants sustained outrage because America should never be a nation where freedom is based on cash on hand.

This legislation is unlikely to get anywhere. Last year Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill that would create a grant fund to help states research alternatives to money bail. It has been languishing in committee since last July. What Sanders and Lieu are proposing goes further, and it faces a White House and Justice Department that have been largely hostile to criminal justice reforms.

The American Civil Liberties Union immediately declared its support for the legislation. "Cash bail keeps close to half a million people in jail before trial because they can't afford to pay," ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kanya Bennett noted in a statement. "It criminalizes poverty, disproportionately impacts people of color, and entrenches thousands of Americans in an unjust and unfair system. The only winners of the cash bail system are bail agents and their insurance backers who profit between one to two billion dollars a year."

New Jersey eliminated most cash bail as part of a suite of criminal justice reforms that were researched before implementation. Initial results are promising, but the state is still collecting data from its first full year of a system focused more on pretrial monitoring and communication with defendants. (Check out Reason's cover story for our August/September issue for a closer look at how it has all worked out for them.) But bail reform doesn't always work out as planned. In Maryland, a requirement that judges should consider money bail as a last resort led to defendants being denied any form of pre-trial release. The result: more people detained in jail. So there may be drawbacks to a top-down push for fast-tracked changes from people who won't have to deal with anything that might backfire.

Sanders' bill gives states three fiscal years to implement new bail systems before cutting off grants, so it's not expecting a miraculous, immediate shift. But there's been a lot of resistance to these reforms: from the bail industry, from judges who face public backlashes if somebody they've allowed out commits crimes, and from jail and prison staff whose jobs are linked to high incarceration rates.

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  1. No money bail? So, what, now I have to put up bitcoins to get out of the poke?

    1. I’m assuming sex bail is still in play.

  2. Bail requirements for misdemeanors are ridiculous.

    Bernie may have finally come up with something worth supporting.

    1. Be careful. He didn’t say anything about eliminating cash bail for the gulag.

    2. He couldn’t just ban bail. He had to have a grant for a study in there. He couldn’t help it. His job is to spend other people’s money. Rand too.

      1. Ah I did not see that. Shame on Rand. Just for that I am not going to lovingly clean his heart-shaped frame tonight like I normally do.

  3. Bail provides an incentive to not skip town before being judged. What’s the replacement incentive being proposed by the Bern? Looks like a half-baked proposal

    1. As a replacement, we can tell them that if they skip town, we’ll bake their beans!

      (Like anyone cares about the eighth amendment.)

      1. We can solve this problem, and help reduce spiraling housing costs for active duty service members by providing an armed one to be sent home with the defendant to supervise his release. What possible objection could there be to that?

    2. For those who are an actual flight risk, we have electronic monitoring and regular check ins with authorities. For those who are a true danger to society, denial of bail seems fine.

      For the vast majority of people, the threat of a bench warrant and further jail time for skipping their court date is incentive enough to not skip town.

      1. electronic monitoring … paid for by whom?

        1. Come now, locking people in cages, real or electronic, is a legitimate function of government.

          We just don’t want government doing those violent things like making roads or taxing people.

        2. Paid for by the money saved from not feeding, clothing, housing, and tending to their ailments.

    3. The bill directs local authorities to come up with an alternative system of tracking and monitoring and then asks them to assess the new system. Yes, it does not provide answers, however, it does allow for local control and initiative.

    4. Didn’t you see, they want to spend a lot of taxpayer money to pay people to try to think of a replacement.

  4. So there may be drawbacks to a top-down push for fast-tracked changes from people who won’t have to deal with anything that might backfire.

    So you’re saying the device Snake was implanted with in “Escape From New York” may have drawbacks?

  5. He’s a fucking socialist.

    1. Maybe he actually isn’t. After all, Trump promised to be non-interventionist and pro economic freedom, and look how that turned out.

      1. Pretty well so far.

  6. And how are people supposed to call their mother when they confiscate your phone and nobody remembers phone numbers anymore?

    1. I was wondering that myself.

  7. I can’t wait for the resident conservatives to tell us how the poor made their own lot in life and deserve to be caged anyway.

    1. Are you projecting? Or just a big an idiot as you sound?

  8. Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!

  9. Bad as cash bail is in many, many situations, I think this proposal is premature and not well thought out. When you take the cash bail option away from judges, what will they do instead? Will this result in even more pre-trial incarceration that we already have? Will this result in some other, even less sane abuse?

    Cash bail is often the wrong answer. But just forbidding it without knowing the right answer seems … unwise.

    1. Fair point. What would you suggest is the right answer?

    2. I believe you are correct. It appears to me that high bail and overcharging is a way for prosecutors to improve their conviction rate. Keep them in jail for long periods and allow defendants to plead to lesser charges with the punishment time served.

  10. Will you take some homegrown reefer?

    I have a new hybrid called “Sessions.”

    1. Real hybrid, or GMO? Inquiring minds want to know.

  11. So anyone considered by a judge to be a flight risk can be assigned to one of Bernie’s many houses, and if they skip out, we can put good old Bernie in the hoosegow.

    Any reason not to confiscate (excuse me, asset forfeit) all but one of Bernie’s houses, as he is a socialist and declared himself for providing free stuff?

  12. I’m sorry, but is he saying he is going to get rid of some long-ago-evolved social mechanism without a clear idea what will replace it other than that we will “develop alternatives”.

    That’s some hubris.

    1. It just occurred to me that plastic straws are being banned with only a vague idea that alternatives will be developed.

  13. Senator Sanders’s “No Money Bail Act” reflects a good heart & weak thought.

    The Act would bar money-bail in federal courts. But it does not stipulate alternative measures a such courts may use. So, it invites chaos & grave court-procedure inefficiency that will burden taxpayers & cost defendants financial strain, time, confinement, and emotional/physical distress: the Act would press courts toward ordering pretrial jail-detention, rather than house-arrest or “release on recognizance” of defense counsel, spouse, family, or the defendant.

    Not seldom, Senator Sanders proposes legislation that reflects his good heart but lacks the stern logic & great foresight necessary to doing good with law.

    Consider Sanders’s advocacy of guaranteed universal basic income or universally guaranteed employment. See, E.G.,…..incoherent

    See also…..ens-united concerning Senator Sanders’s introducing & sponsoring constitution-amendments seeking to overturn Citizens United. In that article, the author criticized a proposed constitution-amendment introduced by Senators other than Sanders. But Senator Sanders was a sponsor of that proposed amendment, which was developed from a very like proposed amendment Senator Sanders did introduce.

    1. This note amends (by addendum) my main comment to which this note “replies.”

      The “No Money Bail Act” seeks, also, state-law adoption of a no-money bail system. But its related terms suffer much poor drafting that would produce effects contrary to the Act’s object ? effects very like those it would hatch in federal courts.


      My main comment’s 2nd paragraph’s 2nd sentence ought to be: “But it does not stipulate alternative measures such courts may use.”

      [The error was an errant article “a” occurring after “measures” and before “such.”]

  14. Sanders- just another scam artist [ like Trump, Obama etc. etc.]. REALITY CHECK!: “Because they are all ultimately funded via both direct and indirect theft [i.e.taxes], and counterfeiting [central bank monopolies], all governments are essentially, at their very cores, 100% corrupt criminal scams, which cannot be “reformed”, “improved”, or “limited” in scope, simply because of their innate criminal nature.”

    Regards, onebornfree

  15. The problem I see is that this treats the symptom, not the cause. We could relieve a lot of the pressure simply by ending The War On Some Drugs and other Nanny State nonsense.

  16. Folks seem upset that Sanders is ending our draconian practice without proposing a detailed alternative. Sounds like repealing the ACA no? Shouldn’t we be happy that he is not dictating how local authorities must implement an alternative system?

    For everyone crying about how he does not have a plan, do you? If an injustice is occurring do we not stop it until we have a plan in place? Do we have to set up a drug board and a well-planned system for legalized drugs before we legalize drugs? Stop complaining and celebrate when someone proposes a just plan. And if you see deficiencies suggest alternatives for cash bail because thebill is incentivizing you to do so.

    1. For bail:
      Have the trial the next day.
      For the ACA:
      repeal ACA in full, including any and all regulations & taxes.
      pass a law requiring all healthcare providers to charge the same price to all customers. (no networks, no kickbacks, no higher price for cash customers)
      Pass a law requiring all health care providers to post their prices; this allows what is missing, market price competition.
      Pass a law requiring health insurance companies to charge the same price to all for the same policy, with a limited benefits period for a new customer without an existing policy. (addresses the ‘preexisting conditions’ mess. A conversion period will be needed to allow those who do not have insurance to decide to sign up or not)
      Prohibit employers from directly providing health insurance. They might be allowed to contribute to HSAs or something, but each consumer needs to pick their own policy so men don’t have to pay for maternity and OB/GYN coverage, and women don’t pay for prostate exams.

  17. I agree with bail reform, but why does it have to be these radicals lobbying to REMOVE it? Bail isn’t there primarily to keep “dangerous” people off the street: it’s to make sure they show up for trial. So bail should be determined on the ability of the offender to pay, and adjusted somewhat based on the severity of the crime. I mean, do we want to have cops re-arresting people in perpetuity who don’t show?

  18. Great. But it is ultimately a band aid. Ending the War on Drugs will go a much further to stop spending our money to desecrate individualism. One trillion spent since 1971 and that does not include residual costs, lost wages and income and lives lost. Not to mention a 1000% rise in incarceration for those being held on drug crimes. With the drug warrior in the Justice Department it will only get worse.

  19. Fair point but this should be extended to financial penalties of any kind. A $200 speeding ticket means nothing to Bill Gates so he can speed with immunity, while the rest of us schlubs actually have to pay a price for breaking the law.

  20. How about fines as a percentage of income/net worth?
    How about bail as a percentage of income/net worth, on a sliding scale based on the crime being accused?

    1. Percentage of income could also be construed as unequal application of the law. The reverse could be argued as well (as Bernie and Reason are doing). I think you’ve got to get money out of it altogether.

  21. Cool, now do minor infraction tickets like speeding that result in poor people going to jail whereas most everyone else just pays the fine and forgets about it.

  22. Presumably the alternative will be to simply insert a tracking chip under the defendant’s skin – made by a company Bernie and friends have already bought stock in.

  23. And where, may I ask, does the senator propose that they swipe their card?

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