More than half a million people will sleep in jails across the U.S. tonight, most of them facing charges for non-violent crimes, and most of them poor. They’re spending months behind bars because they can’t afford bail, and a powerful bail bond lobby is largely responsible for keeping them there.
A groundbreaking three-part story on NPR last week looked into our country’s uniquely backwards bail system, which -- like our prison system -- locks people up not only to preserve public safety, but also to maintain private profit. Counties and states will spend $9 billion on pre-trial detention this year, and countless lives will be disrupted or destroyed by long, unnecessary stays in jail.
As Megan Greenwell wrote on Change.org’s Poverty in America blog this week, the defendants caught in this trap are overwhelmingly poor. NPR, for example, leads its reporting with the story of a Texas man who spent six months in jail because he couldn’t afford bail or even the bond deposit. He was eventually forced to accept a felony conviction, which lost him a chance at a job when he got out. The cycle continues -- but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The problem rests mainly with the powerful bail bond lobby -- a business that earns safe profits by collecting non-refundable deposits (bond) from families and friends of poor defendants in exchange for putting up bail. When the defendant shows up for trial, the bond company recoups its money, but keeps the deposit. Even if the defendant doesn’t show up, the bond company usually comes out ahead, because the state only charges a fraction of the bail.
The better alternative to packed jails are pre-trial release programs, which allow the release and monitoring of defendants before their hearings -- at a fraction of the cost of detention in jail. But bail bonds companies have successfully lobbied county officials across the country to gut pre-trial release programs in order to protect their predatory business.
When NPR’s Laura Sullivan asked bail bondsmen about their lobbying efforts, they didn't mince words.
“We take care of the people who take care of us,” one told her.
‘We're tenacious; we do our job," another says. "People should not just be released from jail and get a free ride. I mean, this is the way the system's got to work."
It’s a problem similar to the private prison companies that lobby governments for longer sentences, three-strikes laws and expanded immigration detention. These shadowy dealings cost taxpayers literally billions, and cost defendants their livelihoods, homes and families -- all for the profit of a few.
Photo Credit: Jackson West