Should the U.S. abolish the bail system? | The Tylt

Real-time Voting
Should the U.S. abolish the bail system?

Kalief Browder's death is one of the many tragic stories caused directly by the bail system. Browder was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was unable to pay bail and remained in jail for three years—in solitary confinement for most of that time—until he committed suicide. 

Browder's story is not unique. Americans across the nation are arrested and unable to make bail, so they stay in jail until their court date. Thanks to the inefficiency of the judicial system, this means people sometimes stay in jail for years until they're even seen by a judge. Keep in mind that in the U.S., we're all assumed to be innocent until we're proven guilty. 


Lawmakers recognize this is a problem. New Jersey is leading the way by largely ending cash bail in the state. Instead of putting up money for your release, people who have been arrested are assessed by a risk assessment program and are either released on their own recognizance or are electronically monitored. Those who are deemed to risky are denied release. 

Here are the specific reforms New Jersey has made to their bail system:

  • All but eliminating cash bail for those charged with crimes, instead allowing judges to set different release conditions based on the perceived risk posed by the defendant.
  • A computer-generated "Public Safety Assessment," which takes into the account the nature and seriousness of the crime along with the defendant's adult criminal history, is used by the judge to determine whether a defendant should be released pending further proceedings, or detained without bail.
  • Those charged by summons, a decision now made in conjunction with police, aren't eligible for pre-trial detention or release with conditions. The vast majority of defendants are released on their own recognizance, sometimes with conditions that can include electronic monitoring, which prosecutors said can be "geo-fenced" to exclude from specific neighborhoods in gang-related cases.
  • Prosecutors seeking pre-trial detention now have to reveal more of the evidence they have gathered against a defendant earlier in the case. 

Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have introduced legislation that would overhaul bail across the nation. Harris and Paul bring up three major points about why the bail system is broken.

Meanwhile, black and Latino defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with similarly situated white defendants. In fact, black and Latino men respectively pay 35 percent and 19 percent higher bail than white men.
This isn’t just unjust. It also wastes taxpayer dollars. People awaiting trial account for 95 percent of the growth in the jail population from 2000 to 2014, and it costs roughly $38 million every day to imprison these largely nonviolent defendants. That adds up to $14 billion a year.
Bail is supposed to ensure that the accused appear at trial and don’t commit other offenses in the meantime. But research has shown that low-risk defendants who are detained more than 24 hours and then released are actually less likely to show up in court than those who are detained less than a day.

The push for bail reform has met resistance because of fears that it will put the public at risk. Under New Jersey's new system, Jules Black was released from pre-trial detention for a felony gun charge because the risk-assessment system said he was not risky. He then went on to kill 26-year-old Christian Rogers in a shooting.

There are problems with the existing bail system. But we can't replace it with a system that makes the public unsafe. Innocent people are put at risk and will be harmed because politicians are too soft on crime. 

"Two hundred years the bail bonds system has been in effect in America, and for 200 years it has worked," Chapman said on Monday."The fact is, is that people are not in jail because they're poor," his wife added. "They're in jail because they broke the law, or they hurt someone."

Bail reform is a noble idea but it's important to see the practical effects of what actually shakes out. The bail system we had before is proven. It's clear there are problems with it, but the most important thing is to keep the public safe. Everything else is secondary to that. 

Switching from a system where a judge determines bail to a system where a computer program decides whether or not someone should be released makes some people nervous. Judges rely on their experience and judgment to determine bail. The risk assessment system is a black box that has already shown it's not entirely reliable. 

In one troubling case brought to light by Elie Honig, director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, a 21-year-old Essex County man was released after allegedly inflicting “a deep laceration over the victim’s eye” and despite the fact that he was convicted of unlawful possession of a handgun. In a letter to the acting administrative director of New Jersey courts, Honig wrote that the criteria for detainment “undervalue the danger posed” by defendants who possess firearms while committing crimes.

The fight for equality in the justice system is important and needs to happen. But it might be balanced against the public's safety. Poor people should not have to be detained before their trial because they do not have money. But innocent people should not be put in harm's way either. There needs to be a balance between the two, and right now, we're seeing the public's safety put at risk. 

Should the U.S. abolish the bail system?
A festive crown for the winner