Cash bail system promotes profit, not justice
Bail is not intended to be a punishment; its intended purpose is to make sure that people show up for their court date. But in communities across Texas, people who are still presumed innocent are being held in jail because they can’t afford to post bail. The Harris County money bail system has been challenged in court and found unconstitutional by a federal judge for precisely this reason.
But in an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle last week, City Council Member Michael Kubosh – who also happens to be a bail bondsman – defended money bail as indispensable to the maintenance of public safety. What he failed to mention, of course, is that bondsmen like him profit from subverting the basic American principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Here’s how: If you have been arrested and booked into jail, a judge will assign you a bail amount of, for example, $2,500. What happens next depends entirely on how wealthy you are.
If you can pay in full, you go home. If you can afford to pay a bondsman 10 percent of the amount – $250 – and you agree to wear his branded ankle monitor or submit to whatever other conditions he might impose on you, then you can go home. The catch, of course, is that even if you are innocent, even if your charges are dismissed, the bondsman still gets to pocket your $250.
If you don’t have $250 – the most common scenario, as well as the worst – you will sit in a cell awaiting trial, possibly for months, while taxpayers foot the bill for your incarceration, your food and your medical care. You will almost certainly lose your job and possibly your home and even custody of your children. In other words, your life will be ruined; again, even if you are innocent of the crime with which you have been charged.
Such a system is clearly not interested in justice. It is interested only in money.
As two people involved in civil rights and community organizations advocating for bail reform, we do not suggest that everyone charged with a crime should simply be released from jail. What we are saying is that determination should not be made on as unjust, ineffective and predatory a consideration as money bail. Those few people who are truly dangerous should be detained no matter the size of their wallets, based on an adequate hearing and a transparent order that recites the reasons the person is too dangerous to let go. But studies show that nearly everyone who is detained pre-trial can be released without jeopardizing public safety, and there are a wealth of proven alternatives: text message alerts of court dates, transportation to court, pre-trial diversion programs and treatment for mental health and addiction, among others.
We’ve already witnessed the effectiveness of the alternatives. New Jersey, for example, once the center of the bail bond industry, recently eliminated money bail via statewide legislation that came into effect in January 2017. By June of that year, jail populations were down nearly 20 percent without any meaningful reported decline in public safety.
Kubosh is right about one thing: Almost all Texas counties do rely on a money bail system to release defendants. But all that means is that almost all Texas counties have an unconstitutional system of pretrial release. This is exactly why Harris County isn’t the only jurisdiction facing a challenge to its money bail system. Last week civil rights organizations filed a federal class action lawsuit against Dallas County for similar violations. Other such challenges are underway all across the country.
It’s time for Texas to end its twisted addiction to money bail and start using the tools to ensure that no one’s liberty is contingent on the size of their pocketbooks. Texans have a #Right2Justice.
Jackson and Jenkins are members of the Right2Justice Coalition.
This story originally appeared 2/1/2018 in the Houston Chronicle.