Many believe that locking up people before trial is a necessary measure to keep our communities safe. But as a former U.S. attorney, I know that too often across the country, someone’s ability to afford bail decides whether they return home to wait for their day in court. To better preserve public safety, this important decision should instead focus much more on whether these people pose a threat to the community.
Money bail systems can allow dangerous people back on the streets, while jailing low-risk individuals instead. On average, research shows nearly half of high-risk defendants, who are likely to commit crime before trial or skip court, are released under effectively no oversight — simply because they have well-financed, and potentially criminal, connections. At the same time, three-fourths of pretrial detainees are accused of property, drug or other nonviolent offenses.
Money bail drives unnecessary incarceration to staggering costs. Since 2000, pretrial detention has been responsible for 95 percent of the national growth in jail populations. There are approximately 450,000 people on any given day in America’s jails sitting and waiting for their day in court. Many of them are there simply because they cannot afford bail.
Most of these people have not committed violent crimes and many will ultimately have their charges dropped or be found innocent at trial. Yet taxpayers spend approximately $38 million a day to jail them, adding up to approximately $14 billion annually.
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Though it may be standard practice, money bail is utilized ineffectively to protect public safety. Many states have already initiated efforts to move away from money bail. New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November to bar judges from detaining low-risk defendants simply because they cannot afford bail. Kentucky has required judges to use pretrial risk assessments to determine pretrial decisions since 2011, resulting in the pretrial release of about 70 percent of arrestees and saving the state approximately $25 million in one year.
The Pretrial Justice Institute estimates that implementing bail reform could result in roughly $78 billion in savings a year — resources that could be redirected to law enforcement fighting violent crime in our communities and strengthening public safety.
In July, Sens. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation that would support other states in replacing money bail with risk-based decisions. By providing $10 million in grants, this bill would especially encourage states that have high incarceration rates but lack the funding necessary to reform their money bail systems to devise their own most effective risk-based assessment. This effort ensures that jail beds are only used by people who are dangers to our communities.
That’s why I have joined 37 fellow members of the law enforcement community to publicly support this bipartisan legislation. It’s time to refocus on reducing crime in America.
The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act is a good first step to achieving public safety in our communities without requiring states to apply a general system designed in Washington. Instead of spending more on jailing those accused of low-level, non-violent crimes before trial, the resources would be better directed toward fighting violence in cities struggling across the country.
Barry Grissom is the former U.S. attorney, District of Kansas and a member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration.