Column: It's time to bail on bail

Bail provides the rich an easy way out of jail, while many are too poor to afford it. It's time to end the criminalization of poverty.

Bryce Kolk is a freshman journalism major at MU. He is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

In America, defendants are guaranteed a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It’s a cornerstone of our republic. No Americans are to face retribution before they are convicted in a court of law.

Our bail system undermines that principle, however.

While a defendant is afforded that right in a trial, bail bonds can ruin a person’s life before they even enter a courtroom.

Bail has a purpose. When defendants are awaiting trial, they can post bail and be released on the condition they appear in court on the date of their trial. Provided they appear in court, the bail is refunded.

It’s been a foundation of our legal system for as long as we’ve had a legal system. But it’s problematic.

Bail creates a class division in our jails.

Our legal system creates two classes of citizens: those able to post bail and those unable. It’s a sad reality, but the wealthy are afforded a “get out of jail free card,” knowing they’ll be able to recoup the funds. Meanwhile, the poorest Americans sit in jail for months before judges hear their cases.

Maybe you disagree. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” or something to that effect. But these people are only in jail for being short on funds.

Punishing someone for a crime they haven’t yet been convicted of goes against every concept of justice we have — between 60 and 70 percent of those in jail have not been convicted of a crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Beyond that, the advent of bondsmen further complicate the issue. These businesses essentially give loans to those unable to post bail, but at a fee when the money is returned.

In effect, this means an innocent person can be jailed for months, post bail, then lose money upon release.

Because of the potential abuses within them, bail bond businesses are only legal in the U.S. and the Philippines.

If that person is employed, this is still preferable to the alternative. Missing any amount of time from work could get them fired. While sitting in jail without any income, it’s easy to fall behind on everyday bills, let alone post bail.

Many, not just those in poverty, would have to turn to a bondsman in this situation.

In 2018, 40 percent of Americans would be unable to afford a $400 emergency expense, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Board.

There are a few high-profile victims of our bail system, as well.

After being arrested at a traffic stop in 2015 and unable to pay a bondsman fee, Sandra Bland committed suicide in jail.

In New York, 16 year old Kalief Browder was charged in 2010 for a crime he did not commit. He spent three years in jail due to his inability to post bail. His mental health deteriorated, and in 2015 he died by suicide.

The only people that benefit from our bail system are bondsmen and governments that collect bail.

There has been some recent progress toward ending monetary bail, however.

In August 2018, California became the first state to end cash bail, but its progress is stalled pending a referendum in 2020. California would allow most nonviolent, misdemeanor defendants release within 12 hours without having to post bail.

In February 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered reforms to the current bail system. They require judges to consider non-monetary conditions and use bail as a last resort. In the case that a monetary bail is set, it should only be enough to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court. It stops short of ending cash bail altogether, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, Zel Fischer, specifically cited the inequality present in the current criminal justice system and also stated that those held on bail are more likely to reoffend on release.

Our criminal justice system criminalizes poverty, and it’s time to change.

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