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"Land of the Free" — that is if you're rich enough

Bottom Feeder

Hypophthalmichthys molitrix
Midas Member
Midas Supporter
Mar 31, 2010
Washington Examiner

In the United States, locking people up for debt is prohibited by federal law and held as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But the American justice system puts poor people behind bars anyways. As a new report from the Hamilton Project shows, this practice has serious consequences.

It's also not a small problem. As the report entitled "Nine Economic Facts about Monetary Sanctions in the Criminal Justice System" notes, “on a typical day in the United States, roughly 460,000 people are incarcerated but have not been convicted of any crime.” Most of that number remains behind bars only because they cannot pay bail, which, by definition means that they would otherwise be eligible for release.

An additional tens of thousands of inmates are locked up for a second time after first gaining their freedom “due to their parole or probation being revoked for a failure to meet financial conditions.” In other words, because they couldn’t pay, they were put in back in prison.

That’s a lot of people pulled out of the workforce, away from their families and likely forced to take on more debt as they incur more fees and prolong their engagement with the criminal justice system.

But the consequences are worse than just those obvious effects. Take, for example, those detained because they cannot make bail. Although officially considered innocent until proven guilty, as Jay Shambaugh, the director of the Hamilton Project, told the Washington Examiner, “at the pre-trial level it very much feels like the opposite.”

Bail is often set well beyond the available liquid assets of a typical household. And so most charged with a crime must either stay in prison or take out a bail bond, which amounts to paying a fee for a constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Based on the median bail amount for a typical felony of more than $10,000 the report explains that even that option isn’t available to many:

More importantly, bail bond premiums are nonrefundable, meaning that many people will functionally have to pay a large fee in order to avoid pretrial detention. Even $1,200 is greater than the total financial assets of the poorest quintile, making it highly likely that poorer defendants would be unable to post bail.
That leaves those already without liquid assets, or perhaps any assets at all, stuck in jail for potentially months, losing money, unable to better prepare for trial and accruing fees associated with incarceration. That predicament, in turn, leads to higher rates of conviction as defendants, desperate to get out, are willing to accept plea deals. Shambaugh pointed out that such deals are often for time served, making them an attractive alternative to staying incarcerated to fight charges in court, even if you're innocent.

Such pleas might be a path out of jail, but the burden of the criminal justice system doesn’t end there. Once branded as a criminal, it becomes hard to find any job, let alone a stable one. And the release usually comes with conditions — parole probation check-ins, drug testing, counseling, or even court ordered payments. So there are plenty of ways to land back in prison, once again, for not having the needed money on hand.

Considering the number of people caught in this system, there are also clear, macroeconomic consequences — especially for cities and other areas where a significant amount of the population. The problems stemming from pre-trial detention might take decades for an individual to undue leaving often disproportionately policed low-income and minority communities bearing generational costs hallowing out families and eroding economic prosperity.

Shambaugh summed the problem well, explaining that when it comes to pre-trial detention, it's both "incredibly inefficient" and "incredibly costly." But given the reality, even that seems like an understatement.

"median bail amount for a typical felony of more than $10,000" — unh, yeah, WAY more than 10,000 bucks in my limited experience.