Guilty Until Proven Wealthy

America’s cash bail system criminalizes poverty and exacerbates racial inequality. Illinois abolished it. Other states should, too.

In These Times Editors

Illustration by Terry Laban

move•ment to end cash bail


1. The effort to abolish the system that locks up alleged criminals for being poor

Holding people in prison for hundreds of dollars in cash bail is always immoral. During a global pandemic, it can be a death sentence.” —Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

Wait. People are really stuck in jail for being poor?

The use of pre-trial detention has expanded rapidly since the 1970s. Now, U.S. jails detain more than 700,000 people each day, almost three-quarters of whom have not been convicted of a crime. Those who have the cash can get bailed out and wait at home for their day in court, while those who can’t afford it wait in jail.

The pretext of the cash bail system is to ensure defendants show up for their day in court, but critics say it criminalizes poverty and creates a two-tiered justice system. The median bail amount for felonies is $10,000, for example — just under a year’s income for the average woman who currently finds herself unable to pay. Even 10% of that amount (the typical nonrefundable premium paid up front by the defendant to a commercial bail bond service, which collects the rest in collateral, to be released on bail) can be insurmountable, given that around 40% of the country struggles to come up with $400 in an emergency.

And more than 40% of people in pretrial detention are Black, reflective of the country’s racial wealth gap.

What happens while people wait in jail?

Nothing good. One 2018 study finds that people who can’t make bail wait an average of 50 to 200 days for trial, creating losses in employment and housing. They are also more likely to get harsher sentences if convicted, or plead guilty just to speed up the process and get out sooner.

Has anywhere actually abolished cash bail?

In 2021, Illinois became the first state to do so—after years of grassroots organizing. Cash bail will be fully eliminated there in 2023.

But smaller jurisdictions have been leading the way. In Washington, D.C., for example, 94% of the city’s defendants are now released prior to trial, and around 90% still show up in court.

Why is this reform important right now?

The United States spends $14 billion annually to detain people before trial — money that could be used for education and anti-poverty programs. The social costs are obviously much, much higher. In fact, wealth-based detention is one of the biggest drivers of jail growth nationwide.

And the iron is hot: Data for Progress shows people oppose the cash bail system two to one.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of criminal justice in action, see, Telling Cops to Get Criminal Justice Degrees Won’t End Police Violence, A Brief Case for Prison Abolition and Police Budgets Are Ballooning as Social Programs Crumble.

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