The practice of bail is a big campaign against the poor and a weird opportunity for the bail industry to exploit the most impoverished among us.
7 minutes
Erik McGregor / Sipa via AP Images

This is by far the most aggravating symptom of the backwardness of criminal justice in America. I’m talking about the ruinous practice of the bail, keeping our jails (as opposed to prison) full with men and women innocent like you and I. And I promise you that anyone with an ounce of commonsense willing to read a dozen headlines on this topic, will start gagging on what she finds. No I’m not exaggerating, my friends. You’ll find that America, although had a history to do it, has failed to abolish an abomination so obvious and old-school that it’s absent anywhere else on this planet (except Philippines). It’s no surprise that our perverted affair with a broken bail system provoked riots inside New York jails as far as 5 decades ago and killed innocent people as recent as 2013.

Above all, the existence of bail money makes a mockery of our law. Why? I’m aware of a couple of reasons, about which I’ll talk in a second, but the chief one is this: To hold in jail innocent people who await trial unless they afford bail is to be complicit in a large campaign of dehumanizing the poor. How large? Of 731,000 people in jail, our judges send to prison a mere fraction of 149,000. This is like running a factory that’s 76% inefficient. And instead of shutting it down, we have been so mad as to have ran it like this since 1980. I’ll repeat the above: The majority of people in jail are innocent. Yet for many of them the average cost of freedom is $10,000 for a felony my friends. That’s when half of our country lacks $400 in savings. This discrepancy betrays the unfortunate fact that our intellectuals live in a fantasy. But I’m not talking about the average person; the jail population is way more impoverished as we shall see.

And this fantasy world is crushing weight on the shoulders of our African American and Latino brothers and sisters. Instead of deserving full amnesty, our immoral status quo across our nation has been targeting them the most. It’s not enough the monumental failure of the war on drugs has filled almost half of our booming prisons with black men and inflicting pain to countless black families (yet a mere 13% of our population consists of African Americans). To our intellectuals this monumental failure is not enough my friends. They must hold in jail even our innocent African American brothers and sisters. Them, our intellectuals deny the elementary capacity to work toward a trial from a position of liberty like those who can afford bail do.

But the tragedy of it all is that we know people will return to their trial without a bail. The state of Washington understood that and purged its communities of the burden of a bail-system in 1992. It’s enough to realize that of those 94% people who exited the jail without bail but on their own recognizance, 88% of them return to their trial. And unlike what the bail industry wants us to believe—yes we’ve got such coterie of freaks—and promoting fear-mongering to continue making profit, only 2% committed another crime. I’ll repeat this: Only 2% committed another crime while at liberty. Just let this sink in for a while.

Washington humanized the criminal justice my friends. I love it. Instead of filling prisons with innocent folks, the state created and supports the so-called pretrial service. This public agency pours its energy into learning the story behind every person in jail. They ask you whether you have a job which you could loose even if for 3 days in jail. They ask you if you have kids to feed, a house to pay, or a mental illness to care for. The fact that the state releases the majority to freedom before trial testifies to the effectiveness of our willingness to learn about our vulnerable society.

But we have no choice but to seek compassion. We know that holding people in jail instead harms them and their case: They will commit crimes more and will receive longer sentences. But of course my friends. When it locks them up, our justice system tells those people America mistrusts them. And people loose faith in an America that’s ever suspicious. It’s little surprise that a humane justice system in Washington works. And it’s not just Washington; other states have shown us a similar reality.

Yet our judges are stuck with the rusty convention of the bail. They take mere minutes to decide on the price of our liberty. I’m not inventing these things my friends. In spite of Washington proving it to us that empathy works and inspiring other states to reform, between 1990 and 2009 the bail had become more expensive. And to make things worse, since 1990 our judges have become more than twice as aggressive at sending people to jails on bail. Such delusional trend disturbs me and it should disturb everyone in America.

The bail exacerbates the implicit racism in our justice system. We ought to remember that almost all the prosecutors in our country are white and male. Only 1% are women of color my friends. It’s more perplexing that almost all of the prosecutors never face a challenger during an election. WOW-WOW-WOW. We must change that. And one seventh of a time whether somebody receives bail depends on the goodness of a judge. But justice shouldn’t be about how big of a heart a judge has. Justice isn’t a lottery. And if we continue to allow judges to order bail, they will continue to disfavor black folks. The odds that our judges will order a bail increases by 25% for black people and they get 35% more expensive bails.

And to add insult to injury, once in jail the bail industry prays on these innocent people. We already know that those who end up in jails are impoverished. They survive on a meager average of less than $16,000 a year, compared to the national average of $33,000. In local jails, black people in the prime of their life had earned less than $900 a month before arrest. Who can live with this money in America, my friends, or afford a bail however small? But the bail industry cares little. Nor do care the 10 insurance companies that underwrite this industry. What they see is an opportunity to earn money. And money they earn my friends—up to $2.4 billion a year. These are money that some dudes make off of our impoverished communities. In New Orleans, Black residents payed 84% of bail premiums. It’s little surprise why the industry travels through black neighborhoods giving away branded t-shirts for free. I have no doubt the industry is aware of its gross complicity in our collective backwardness.

Yes the industry is also aware its business plan is a lie. These amoral capitalists claim to be doing you and me a favor. They claim to be doing a favor to the millions innocent people in jail, paying for them the bail for a 10% premium. These are capitalists ran amok who claim to guarantee and check on people to return to trial. It reminds me of the industry around the fugitive slaves in the south. The industry wants us to believe that it saves us money. But as we have seen in Washington, people return without a third-party sticking its nose in our public life. When a simple text message goes a long way to reminding people to come to trial, this business feeds just on our resistance to reform. (And that’s what we’re seeing in New Jersey where all bondsmen vanished because the state did away with the bail.) In fact, the industry makes money and has had no profit loss in the last 2 decades because almost all the people return to trial on their own terms. Yes my friends, the industry is enriching itself on the same fact and premise that we must use to reform our criminal justice.

But the bondsman will argue with you my friends. He’ll tell you he’s the superman who helps America bring high-risk defendants to trial. But will he tell you he rips juicier premiums from such high-risk defendants? Will he tell you that the most dangerous defendants will exploit his service to get out and commit more crime? The bondsman doesn’t sleep with the defendant in one bed after all.

So America must understand it already—it’s too long overdue to abolish the bail. It’s time we use the $14 billion on educating our communities instead of spending this money on maintaining our jails and enriching corporations. To allow this is to allow these to capitalize with greed on a rudimentary yet severe flaw in our justice. And it’s time we halt what I think is a corrupt if not pervert chain of facts: Like a tic on our nation’s vain, the bondsman sucks wealth from impoverished communities—whom we must applaud for their stamina and abundant blood—,pockets the most of it, then gives away millions to politicians to buy influence to keep the bail. And I have one thing to tell these politicians: The sole acceptance of money that should be in the pockets of the poor is treason. The world watches America agape.