In recent months and years, the criminal justice system in the U.S. has been the target of much scrutiny and debate. According to the nonprofit, The Sentencing Project, as of 2013 the U.S. rate of incarnation had increased 500 percent since the 1980s; making the U.S. by far the “world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails.”
In an effort to understand why so many Americans are being locked up, several non-profit groups, researchers and journalists have examined contributing factors. In a recent New York Times article, struggles related to making bail and how the bail process serves to ultimately punish and hold down individuals who are disadvantaged, poor and often black were examined.
One example cited in the article centers on a 29-year-old black man who was recently arrested for his alleged role in the Baltimore riots. Due to the man’s history with drugs and criminal record for related non-violent offenses, a judge set his bail at $250,000. Unable to pay even a fraction of this exorbitant bail amount, the man spent a month in jail before the criminal charges against him were eventually dropped.
This is usually where the news report ends. However, it’s important to examine and acknowledge how costly bail amounts serve to detain and punish individuals before they have their day in court. Additionally, society must recognize the rippling effects that high bail amounts have on the lives of those directly and indirectly impacted. In the case of the 29-year-old Baltimore man, his 25-year-old girlfriend was forced to quit her job and drop out of school to care for her two children whom her boyfriend normally watches. In addition to losing her only source of income, the woman also lost $18,000 in student loans.
In legal terms, bail is meant to be used to “impose as little restriction as needed to reasonably ensure that a defendant appears in court,” with the Supreme Court noting that “detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” Despite its intended use, many argue that today bail is widely being used to detain and punish people against whom charges are often dropped or dismissed.