March 18, 2021

Guilty until proven wealthy

 It’s often said that, in the American legal tradition, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, these days, it’s more like guilty until proven wealthy.

I’m talking specifically about the cash bail system. At any given time, as many as 700,000 Americans are locked up in jails. According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, most of these people haven’t been convicted of or even tried for the crimes for which they were arrested.

The reason most of them languish in overcrowded jails has no necessary connection to public safety. It’s because they can’t afford cash bail.

Now, that’s criminal. Specifically, it’s the criminalization of poverty.

As far back as 1964, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy observed that bail had become “a vehicle for systematic injustice.”

In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he wrote: “Bail has only one purpose — to insure that a person who is accused of a crime will appear in court for his trial. We presume a person to be innocent until he is proven guilty, and thus the purpose of bail is not punishment. It is not harassment. It is not to keep people in jail. It is simply to guarantee appearance in court.”

Things have gotten much worse over the years. The Vera Institute of Justice notes that pretrial detention increased by 433% between 1970 and 2015. It’s probably gotten worse over the past six years.

According to national data, the median bail set for a felony charge is around $10,000, in a country where 40% of the population would have trouble coming up with an unexpected $400. Even if the accused person or the family can raise that money with a bail bond agent, they will lose a percentage of what they coughed up. Many times, the accused will be found not guilty or the charges will be dropped.

The racial bias inherent in this system is glaring: While Black Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, they account for about 40% of Americans in pretrial custody. In any case, we’re overwhelmingly talking about poor and working-class people.

What happens to people held in jail because they can’t afford bail isn’t pretty. It takes only a few days to put people at risk of losing jobs, homes or child custody. Family members — and especially children — can be traumatized. And a lot of bad things can happen in overcrowded jails. The effects can last for generations.

People who can’t afford bail also are more likely to be given harsher sentences or accept plea deals, just to get out at some point.

It’s also expensive to taxpayers. In a 2017 report, the Pretrial Justice Institute estimated that the United States spends about $14 billion “to detain people who are mostly low risk, including many whose charges will ultimately be dropped.”

Even though the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bail reform bill last year, the jail numbers in West Virginia have increased. As reported on March 15, the population in West Virginia’s regional jails has jumped to 6,135. The actual capacity of those jails is 4,265. This means that regional jails are about 43% over their capacity. Of these, approximately the same percentage is being held for pretrial.

All this occurs in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where risk of infections and community spread are high because of the constantly churning jail population. Many have pointed out that a stint in jail for a minor offense could be a death sentence.

It wasn’t always that way. As recently as April 16, 2020, the regional jail population was as low as 4,085 because of steps taken to reduce the jail population to slow the spread of the virus — and there was no spike in the crime rate. But the population rapidly increased again as things returned to “normal.”

Under the 2020 reform bill, judges or magistrates must hold a hearing within 72 hours for people who are incarcerated because they can’t afford bail. Incredibly, a new measure, House Bill 3106, would increase the period someone waits in pretrial for a hearing to 10 days, making a bad situation much worse.

Even aside from the impact on incarcerated people, their families and public health, this would have a huge cost on taxpayers. Counties owe $48.25 per day for each inmate in a regional jail, and at least 10 counties are behind in payments to the tune of millions of dollars. When counties fall behind, the state picks up the difference.

If we use the March 15 numbers reported by the state, there were 2,672 people in pretrial detention, at a cost to counties of $128,924 per day. At 10 days, we’re talking $1,289,240. And many people who can’t make bail are held for weeks and months.

Clearly, HB 3106 would be a step in the wrong direction for all concerned. Rather, West Virginia would do well to continue on the path to reform and ultimately abolish a system that bases personal liberty solely on the ability to pay.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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