From NBC News
We need to reform a broken system that punishes Americans for crimes even if they're never convicted
In a country in which we pride ourselves on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" we should not be keeping hundreds of thousands of people locked up before they have actually been convicted of a crime.
And yet in 2016, more than 65 percent of the over 700,000 people in county or city jails on any given day in the United States were "unconvicted" -- meaning that more than 400,000 people were in jail who had not been convicted of a crime, often because they lack the money to pay bail. In other words, we have criminalized poverty.
That is not acceptable. Pretrial detention should be not based on how much money a person has, what kind of mood the judge is in on a given day, or even what judge the case happens to come before.
When a person is arrested, they are brought before a judge to evaluate the charges against them and decide whether or not to set bail -- and, if they set bail, at what amount. But bail is not supposed to be set above a person's ability to pay; people should not be sitting in jail awaiting their trial simply because they are poor.
In 2016, the average length of stay in jail for the entire jail population was 25 days, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It might not sound like much, but the sad truth is that people who can't afford bail, and who thus spend three or four weeks in jail awaiting trial, are likely to lose their jobs and their income, they won't be able to pay their rent and may find themselves homeless, and they may even lose custody of their children -- all because they don't have enough money to buy their way out of jail.
Further, a recent study showed that people who have to stay in jail before their trial are more likely to plead guilty -- presumably just to move the process along. According to the ACLU, "pretrial detention is the greatest predictor of a conviction."
Overall, the U.S. spends nearly $14 billion each year locking people up who haven't been convicted and might never be. It's clear the system is a poor use of resources. In 2015, the city of New Orleans collected $4.5 million in bail, fines and fees, but spent $6.4 million detaining people who couldn't afford to pay their bail, fine or fee.
And, as with so many other aspects of our society, for-profit companies are making huge profits off of poor defendants. The for-profit bail industry makes well over a billion dollars each year -- and the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that even allows for-profit bond companies.
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