Guilty until proven wealthy

By Melissa Navarra, Business Manager

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a core principle of the American justice system. However, on a given day, there are nearly half a million people being kept in U.S. jails pre-trial, despite the fact that they are legally innocent of the crimes with which they have been charged. 

This is because of cash bail: a system created to ensure defendants return to court for their trial by requiring they pay a certain amount of money to be used as collateral. If they return to court, they will get their money back. If they fail to appear, the court keeps their money and issues a warrant for their arrest. Either way, the defendant will end up back in court whether they want to or not. 

Not only is cash bail unnecessary, but it perpetuates the inequalities in our justice system and disproportionally affects communities of color, all while the courts, for-profit prisons and many others benefit from these injustices.

Imagine this: there are two people charged with the same crime. Person A has a salaried job, and person B works a minimum wage job. Bail is set at the same amount for both of them because the courts determine the amount of bail based on the charge, not on the individual’s income. 

Person A makes enough money to post bail, but person B does not. Person A will be released and get to go about their normal life, but during the weeks or even months leading up to their trial, person B will sit in jail, despite the fact that the two were charged with the same crime and have not stood trial and been found guilty.

After their pretrial incarceration, Person B is at risk of losing their job, housing and even custody of their children, which would increase their likelihood of recidivism, and thus the cycle of poverty and crime continues. 

Cash bail does not ensure that the defendant returns to court, nor does it protect the community from potential threats. This may come as a surprise to some people, but most people do not need to be incentivized with money to fulfill their obligations.

Additionally, many individuals who are incarcerated pre-trial do not even pose a threat to public safety. If someone did, I certainly would not want them to be released simply because they have the means to pay their bail. Cash bail criminalizes poverty and needs to be abolished, and pre-trial incarceration should only be applied if the prosecution can prove the need for detention.

A presumption of release can be supplemented with court date reminders, transportation assistance, flexible scheduling, child care and many other strategies to support defendants who are at a disadvantage.

Even with all of the evidence supporting the argument that cash bail is not effective and is extremely unjust, there is still controversy surrounding bail reform. Racism, unsurprisingly, is the culprit. 

Cash bail — and the prison system in general — is one of the many tools of the oppressor to maintain the status quo. Just think about who benefits from cash bail. 

Let’s follow the money: if a defendant does not return to court, the court keeps the money, and even if they do return to court, they may not get all of their money back. If the defendant cannot post bail, their chances of conviction increases because they are more likely to enter into a plea bargain in order to speed up the trial process. 

This means that more potentially innocent people are being convicted and incarcerated because of cash bail, and private prisons surely benefit from that. Furthermore, for-profit prisons use their money to lobby for policies that will keep the prisons full. 

So, when you see someone on Fox News getting angry about the “criminals” who are being released and threatening the safety of “law-abiding” citizens, use your critical thinking to deduce why they might be spreading this propaganda.

Crime has less to do with “bad” people and more to do with those in power who use money to maintain control over the oppressed. Cash bail does not reduce crime — it sustains it — and it must be eliminated.