Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
California has become the first state to get rid of bail, replacing it with a risk-assessment system that discerns a few different outcomes based on individual circumstances. Several other states, including Maryland, have been inching in a similarly progressive direction.
Instead of automatically detaining people too poor to pay bail, a decision would be made considering factors such as whether it’s reasonable to keep someone facing minor misdemeanor charges in an overcrowded and under-resourced jail, or how likely it is the person will run off before their court date. Rather than jailing or freeing people based on their socioeconomic status — even when supervised release is 10 times cheaper than detaining someone — more focus and funding can be put into pretrial services to give people resources before their court date.
This is an excellent step in reshaping the warped American justice system, which has been honed to be really good at putting people in cells and not much else. The experience people have pretrial can have a strong effect on the outcome of that trial. A study by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found that the non-felony conviction rate for people jailed pretrial was 92 percent, compared to a 50 percent conviction rate for those who were not.
The entire bail system also inherently disadvantages those who can’t afford to be out of work and away from their lives for however long they’re detained. They can then be pressured into accepting a plea deal to resolve their cases sooner and mitigate the damage to their lives.
Moreover, a greater focus on pretrial services means people released prior to trial — people who might otherwise be stuck in jail without access to any rehabilitative resources — can get necessary assistance for mental health, substance abuse or housing issues they may be going through. Replacing the bail system with a system that creates the opportunity for individual care is a step toward preventing people from repeatedly ending up in court.
Washington, D.C., courts have moved toward leaving bail behind and in 2015, granted 91 percent of defendants release prior to their trial — often with some condition of reporting to courts, such as submitting to drug tests or GPS supervision. For every 100 defendants they released, only two were projected to be re-arrested for violent crimes. It’s a system that’s been working.
The risk remains that some people will be unfairly detained, but bail reform at least presents an avenue for improvement over the current dead end system. Traditionally, if a person can’t pay their bail, they’re stuck waiting for their trial in jail regardless of how reasonable that is considering their charges or socioeconomic status. It’s a system that discourages consideration of individual circumstances, whereas bail reform is actively based on it. Not only does the new system propose alternatives to methods we know don’t work, it represents a change in attitude toward the people who need and have been historically denied the most assistance.
Sona Chaudhary, opinion editor, is a junior English and geology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.