No Bail Money Keeps Poor People Behind Bars


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Punishing the Poor

Excessive bail is often cited as a tool to punish the poor, while letting the wealthy go free. The resulting costs of incarceration are high and cost tax payers millions. The excerpt below is from a WNYC News special report released today that explores how excessive bail is causing an incarceration crisis in New York City.

Every day three quarters of the people sitting in a New York City jail are waiting for trial. Most are there for one simple reason: they are too poor to make bail.

Nearly 50,000 defendants each year are put behind bars after their first court hearing pending trial. Most spend days or weeks in jail. Some, however, can spend months or more than a year on Rikers Island all because they can’t afford to make bail. And that costs taxpayers a lot of money.

“It is beyond my imagination why we would let a system like this continue to exist in New York, where you are draining our resources and treating people unfairly, with no humanity and with no purpose,” said Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the man who oversees the state court system.

Lippman thinks the bail statute should be overhauled. Earlier this year, he proposed changes to effectively require judges to release defendants pending trial unless there’s a compelling reason to hold them – like public safety. [Continue Reading…]

[Source: “No Bail Money Keeps Poor People Behind Bars,” WNYC News, 19 September 2013, by Robert Lewis]

In New York City, lengthening incarceration rates due to poverty are compounded by outdated drug laws along with stop-and-frisk policing.

Court delays of as long as five years in felony cases have pushed the Bronx criminal courts into the bottom ranks of courts nationally, reaching what even the judges call crisis levels.

[Source: “In Misdemeanor Cases, Long Waits for Elusive Trials,” NY Times, 30 April 2013, by William Glaberson]

Johnson County Incarceration Concerns

The need for drug law reform and bail bond reform isn’t limited to larger metropolitan areas. In Johnson County, many people have expressed concern about the number of people incarcerated who are in jail because of:

  • a circumstance caused by a mental illness that should be treated, not punished
  • drug use, specifically marijuana, that isn’t a threat to society
  • alcohol consumption, rather than an illegal activity resulting from alcohol consumption
  • policing practices and justice processes that target (or are harder on) certain neighborhoods and people; resulting in a racially imbalanced population of people arrested and incarcerated
  • an inability to pay bail, thus those who don’t have means end up suffering greater than those with the ability to pay, even though they may have committed a similar crime, this results in a justice system experience that are determined by your wealth – it should be noted that the formula used to determine bail is calculated based on the severity of crime and a person’s past offenses.

Some of the above concerns are being addressed. For example, an effort is made to identify and treat those with drug, alcohol, and mental health issues. Jail Alternatives and investments in Community Partners also help in this regard. Yet, some county residents feel more needs to be done.

Policing practices are something mostly outside the control of the county administration. The Iowa City Police and University of Iowa Police are being pressured by their respective communities to be more sensible and lenient in how they are enforceing the law.[1] There is also pressure to have policing that doesn’t result in racially disproportionate arrests.[2]

The concern about “doing time because you’re poor” continues to be expressed by many residents in Johnson County. The question raised is this, “Why are we spending tax money to provide room and board to poor people in a jail, but we won’t provide expanded lodging and meals to the poor in a setting (like a homeless shelter) where it would be much less costly?”

In other words, let’s proactively invest in social services to help lift people up rather than waiting until they get arrested for some reason which makes it less likely they will escape the cycle of poverty. In light of recent Iowa City laws that essentially make it illegal to be poor and homeless, concerns about incarcerating the poor are even greater.[3] We’ve recently had people arrested for stealing food and illegally taking shelter on private property. If shelter and food were being offered effectively to the poor, such arrests would not happen.

How Do We Compare?

On whatever issue people are discussing, it’s helpful to know what’s happening elsewhere.

Sometimes, as with incarceration rates, it turns out we’re actually doing much better than most places in the country (and the world). With other issues like racial disparity and extended incarceration for the poor, we’re doing about the same as other communities.

If we’re going to focus on fixing anything (or complaining about something), it should be something we’re doing worse at than others, and figure out how to improve that. For problems where we’re doing the same or better, we should certainly be concerned and diligent, but understand we’re taking on a challenge that nobody else seems to have solved yet.

When we hear about people in New York City being incarcerated for as much as 5-years before getting a fair trial, that certainly makes our circumstances sound better. Yet, we need to strike a balance between complacency and being overly critical of local law enforcement and county administrators. To simply stand back and complain about our local situation doesn’t move us close to improving things.

An Immediate Short-Term Solution

Until we see a reform of bail bond laws, perhaps concerned citizens in the community could donate toward a central fund that could be used to pay bail for the poor. We donate financially in other ways to help the poor. Why not donate toward paying to see them released from jail? If there doesn’t seem to be sufficient enthusiasm to generate enough volunteer donations, perhaps a local sales tax could help raise the funds for this purpose. The money would go directly to the county, so it would essentially be a fund raising tool for county needs.

~ Greg Johnson, Volunteer



These notes related to the numbered reference notes in the above text.

1. As an example of an arrest that wasn’t sensible or lenient, several law students had chosen to walk instead of drive because they felt they had too much to drink that night. On their way walking home, they were arrested for public intoxication. This is one example of many when sensible practices, leniency, and officer discretion would have likely resulted in a warning being given.

2. There have been reports of of police giving ‘extra attention’ to people of color and the neighborhoods they live in. To the extent this is true and widespread, it’s a policing practice that would result in more arrests and higher rates of incarceration among people of color.

3. Iowa City recently joined cities like Denver, Colorado in establishing and enforcing loitering laws which tend to exclusively impact the poor and homeless. These laws don’t make it illegal to be poor or homeless, but they do restrict where the poor and homeless can spend extended amounts of time.


Categories: Justice Reform


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