Kalief Browder’s story is not well known. However, unwarranted detention is sadly quite common. Not only have hundreds of people been held at Rikers for as long as two years without a trial or conviction, 80% of the 15,000 people currently held at Rikers are also being held in pre-trial detention. These people are disproportionately poor Black and brown people. All across the country, people are being denied freedom of movement, employment, and human rights despite being found guilty of no crime except poverty.
The cash bail system allows people who have never stood trial or been convicted of a crime to be locked away for years at a time, all because they cannot afford to pay bail.
People accused of crimes in the United States are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. However, with our cash bail system, those who have enough money and resources to buy their way out get pre-trial freedom, while low-income people languish in jail.
Here’s how it works: people who have been arrested—regardless of how minor the alleged offense—are brought before judges who unilaterally set the bail amount that they’ll have to pay to be released until their trials begin. If they are unable to pay the full amount, they can’t leave. That can mean being held in jail for weeks, months, or even years until their trials begin. During that time, whole families suffer because of lost jobs, lost income for families, and in too many cases, families losing their primary caregiver. This is all before someone even faces trial.
A defendant’s ability to pay an arbitrarily decided amount of money is not a determinant of a person’s threat to public safety. It is merely a measure of how much money and what resources are available to them.
Black communities systemically face more economic oppression–suffering higher rates of wage theft and underemployment, therefore Black defendants are far less likely to be able to afford bail. Since law enforcement over-police, over-surveil, and more often target Black people for pretextual traffic stops and arrests, Black folks are more likely to be charged with crimes.
A clear picture emerges of a cash bail system that is meant to incarcerate Black people–and brown and Indigenous people–regardless of whether or not they are found guilty of a crime.
We need to abolish the cash bail system. But “tough on crime” advocates heavily rely on fearmongering and falsehoods to suggest that bail reform will lead to criminals running wild in the streets causing havoc. The truth is between 2011 and 2019, in jurisdictions that significantly reduced usage of cash bail, crime rates either remained flat or decreased. The insistence on pre-trial incarceration is, then, rooted in something other than concerns about public safety.
The cash bail system is fundamentally racist and classist. Low-income Black and brown people are disproportionately forced into jails away from their families and communities while they await trial. Furthermore, the time served in jail is a disadvantage during trial. People detained for long periods before trial are convicted more often and receive harsher sentences. Cash bail serves as a heavy thumb on the scale against justice for people of color.
We cannot serve justice as long as we use cash bail.