Today, thousands of people in King County and across the country are sitting in jail not because they were convicted of a crime, but simply because they could not afford an arbitrary bail.
Watching bail hearings at the King County District Court here in Seattle was very discouraging. What I observed over the course of two hours on an otherwise routine Tuesday morning in September made me question whether my work in social justice would ever make an impact. I watched as our criminal-justice system dehumanized some of our population’s most vulnerable. I felt baffled that with all the incredible minds we have in this country and the state of Washington, we haven’t come up with a more just and empathic system.
Today, thousands of people in King County and across the country are sitting in jail not because they were convicted of a crime, but simply because they could not afford a somewhat arbitrary bail. Now, let me be clear: I am not advocating for the release of dangerous people when they are brought to court. But too many minor nonviolent crimes of survival come with a bail cost that does more harm than good to the fabric of our society.
Under the current cash-bail system, just being accused – but not convicted – of a crime often requires someone to post money to get out of jail while the case is being resolved. As recently reported by the Seattle Weekly, prosecutors in misdemeanor cases routinely request up to $1,000 bail for minor charges, like trespassing for sleeping on a park bench or petty theft. As you can probably deduce, the people accused of committing these poverty-related crimes do not have the funds needed to post bail. Thus, they are sitting in jail while their case is pending, sometimes for months at a time, and in some cases even longer. However, if you are well-off with the means of posting 10 or 50 times that amount to get out of jail, this is not an issue. The formula is simple: If you are rich and charged with a crime, you go about life while you await trial; if you’re poor, you don’t.
Why does this matter? Because research suggests that the money bail system and the destabilizing impact of sitting in jail increases crime and the cycle of poverty. People lose their jobs and miss medical treatments while sitting in jail. This has led people to plead guilty with the promise of pretrial release, when they are actually innocent. Yes, some people would rather have a false criminal conviction on their record than to sit in jail. However, in the long run, this increases their likelihood of committing more, not less, poverty-related crime.
The main argument against eliminating the cash-bail system is the fear that individuals would not return to court. However, in Washington, D.C., where there is no cash bail, 90 percent of people, indeed, return to court – a much higher rate than the current national average. And other places, like New Jersey and Philadelphia, also are implementing massive changes to their cash-bail systems. The sky has not fallen in, as suggested by bail bondsmen everywhere.
Reform is also financially sound. It would cost taxpayers a fraction of the cost to offer services that address the underlying issues of an incarcerated person as opposed to the expense necessary to keep people jailed.
Cash bail is just another example of how our system is waging war on poor people when it should be fighting poverty. Simply put, the current system benefits those with the means to post bail. And, as a concerned citizen, I am not satisfied with describing that system as providing justice. I believe we must join the jurisdictions that have abandoned cash bail in nonviolent misdemeanor cases. I’m asking our local prosecuting attorney to lead the way – he can start by ending requests for cash bail on these crimes of poverty and go from there.
It’s time we start looking at the systems around us with an empathic lens. Neglecting to do so will perpetuate the issues that are abundant in our criminal-justice system. If we are serious about addressing the human issues associated with crimes of survival, poverty and homelessness, then we need to humanize the way we think about them.