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The Use And Abuse Of The Bail System

The history of the bail system goes back to the Middle Ages, so perhaps it is no surprise that it can be excessively harsh on non-wealthy citizens. The last significant alteration to the U.S. bail system was more than 20 years ago. Many people believe that the time has come to revisit the issue of bail. The system is overly burdensome to poor and middle class citizens and often leads to periods of incarceration that far exceed even the period that would result from an immediate conviction.

Many states are reviewing the policies that have led the United States to incarcerate far more people than any other country. The bail system contributes to the excessive number of people behind bars by making it difficult or impossible for some people to afford the relatively small percentage of the bail amount charged by bail bondsmen. When bail is set so high that paying even 10 percent of the figure is unworkable, the purpose is clearly to incarcerate the person, not to ensure their compliance with the criminal justice system. 

The problem is vast. According to the National Institute of Corrections, roughly 500,000 people currently in American jails are there because they cannot afford bail. That number includes many people who will later see the charges dropped or who will be found not guilty at trial. By the time they are vindicated, they may have lost their jobs, their homes, custody of their children and any hope of getting back on their feet.

The money bail system does little to deter flight for wealthy people. For people who less well off, the system is plainly punitive. It creates injustice, which is clearly not something the justice system should easily tolerate.

Source: The New York Times, "When Bail Is Out of Defendant's Reach, Other Costs Mount," by Shaila Dewan, 10 June 2015 

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