Across the United States, judges routinely require criminal defendants, who have not been convicted of any crime and are presumed to be innocent, to buy their freedom in the form of money bail. As any defense attorney can attest, this system jails the poor and allows the rich to free.
And because many criminal defendants are poor, the key factor in the incarceration of people awaiting trial is poverty, not their risk to society or their risk of failing to appear in court. As a result, on any given day more than 450,000 people are in jail merely awaiting trial. The human and economic costs of this unnecessary detention are staggering.
In a study of pretrial detention in Maryland, we found that more than 17,000 people were jailed because they were too poor to pay a bail amount of less than $5,000. Those unable to pay the full amount of money bail set by the court must resort to bail bondsmen, who typically demand 10 percent of the total bail amount as a non-refundable fee for securing the defendant’s release. This means that these people could not buy their freedom for $500. Because we looked at only a fraction of Maryland criminal cases, this statistic dramatically underestimates the total.