“The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail.” — Robert F. Kennedy
On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a new bill calling for the federal abolition of money bail, a judicial practice which currently holds thousands of citizens in jail, prior to their conviction of any sort of crime, due to the suspect’s inability to pay for early release.
The Intercept reports the legislation, The No Money Bail Act, intends to withhold government funding from states who continue the current pre-trial system instead enforcing progressive alternatives. Working off similar legislation from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who secured 33 House co-sponsors, Sanders’ move toward criminal justice reform states that all new bail reforms “require a study three years after implementation to ensure that new alternate systems are also not leading to disparate detentions rates,” according to the official summary obtained from the senator’s office. While his plan echoes similar measures proposed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sanders’ abolition plan currently has no co-sponsors.
“It has always been clear that we have separate criminal justice systems in this country for the poor and for the rich,” the summary declares. “A wealthy person charged with a serious crime may get an ankle monitor and told not to leave the country; a poor person charged with a misdemeanor may sit in a jail cell. And this disproportionately affects minorities — fifty percent of all pre-trial detainees are Black or Latinx.”
Sen. Sanders released accompanying statements after the bills’ release:
“Poverty is not a crime and hundreds of thousands of Americans, convicted of nothing, should not be in jail today because they cannot afford cash bail. In the year 2018, in the United States, we should not continue having a ‘debtor prison’ system. Our destructive and unjust cash bail process is part of our broken criminal justice system — and must be ended.”
While elimination of the bail system appears radical — cue Fox News segments screaming progressives are “pies in the sky” — it has bipartisan support across the nation. Strong political power-brokers, such as Google, Facebook and even The Koch brothers, the billionaire GOP donors known as the mortal enemies of Sen. Sanders, have supported such criminal justice reforms in the past. The question is whether Sen. Sanders can secure support for his bill during this era of “tough on crime” Trumpism.
The Guardian reports it’s gaining traction on the state level, citing New Jersey legislation which recently abolished cash bail and progress in Maine and Maryland to significantly curb the practice. Consider these are northern Democratic states where progressives and left-of-center neo-liberals control the power structures. In four southern/middle-American states, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin, this practice has been forbidden for years. There is reason to see the federal government following the states in reform. It’ll come down to where each party focuses their reform efforts.
Democrats, represented in Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), show an interest in addressing pre-crime measures in The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, a push to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act, which moves the country closer towards potential legalization.
Republicans, led by senior White House adviser and son-in-law to the President, Jared Kushner, believe in reformation after prison time is served. In May, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), joined by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), introduced Kushner’s First Step Act, a bill ensuring prisoners from low-level, non-violent drug crimes to serious offenses receive help towards societal integration and rehabilitative programs. Ignoring the sentencing, offense and for-profit prison problems which put citizens behind bars in the first place.
Sanders’ summary continues to claim that the for-profit bail industry is “making a fortune” from those exploited by the system. This isn’t some radical fear-mongering on the senator’s part. It’s just the reality of the industry. According to a 2017 report from the ACLU, the non-partisan non-profit organization committed to protecting civil liberties, both the courts and bail bonds industry make between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion a year from those who pay the price. Keep in mind America is the only country, besides the Philippines, where the bonds system remains legal.
This coincides with a December UCLA study which found that between the years 2012 to 2016, $19 billion in cash bail was levied against those arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. The researchers soon concluded that “city residents pay a steep price before their innocence or guilt has been determined,” driving up two-tier justice between the rich and poor.
Now, I could bet my life that even most Californians, living in one of America’s most successful states, didn’t have enough to make up their end of the bail costs. Not when corporate media like CNN acknowledge 40 percent of Americans can’t afford a 400 dollar emergency when they’re making above minimum wage, let alone the liberty to skip work for time behind bars. The lowest bail amount, set at around $100, is an unthinkable expense of 17 percent of one’s weekly income if we’re to assume they earn the “radical” hourly wage of $15.
If you’re poor, there’s a good chance you’re staying behind bars.
But don’t worry, when bail can’t be made, there’s a profit motive behind the incarceration. Often “private prisons,” a term we’ll use lightly, have what’s known as an “inmate quota” in contracts conducted between state governments. An inability to afford bail, for example — which is 60 percent of those in jail despite no criminal conviction — would help ensure these contractual demands are met. Otherwise, companies often demand taxpayers foot the bill for each empty bed, according to an analysis from Public Interest.
“Pretrial detention should be based on whether or not someone truly should not be freed before their trial,” Sanders’ summary continued. “It should not depend on how much money they have, or what kind of mood the judge is in on a given day, or even what judge the case happens to come before. We also must ensure that jurisdictions do not eliminate cash bail but find pretexts to continue unfairly locking people up before trial.”
It was 2016 when The Department of Justice declared America’s current money bail system was “unconstitutional,” siding with a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice as a discriminatory against the poor. It’s built on a flawed concept that only monetary incentives can ensure people return to court. It was Robert Durst, the millionaire who murdered his neighbor Morris Black, who laughed this concept out of the room in his HBO interview. What’s a few thousand dollars when you’re free with more to spare, after all. The low-middle income individuals don’t have such freedom, locked up in cells without conviction, awaiting trial as their jobs, homes, families, and prospects to build a defense are slowly eroded, and they are coerced into pleading guilty.
How is this justice?
Well, according to Sanders, standing alone with his bill, it simply isn’t.