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Guilty or Innocent, You May Sit In Jail

Have you ever thought about how many people are incarcerated? Sure, it is not something that typically comes to mind, but for activists that focus on community legal services, that is all they can think of.

The number of people that are incarcerated in the United States is simply shocking. The sad part? Many of the people that are sitting in jail right now are sitting there because they are poor and cannot afford to pay the bail to get out. It is incredible that people that have not been convicted of a crime are stuck in jail unable to be with their families, unable to work, and unable to enjoy the freedoms that are supposed to be given as American citizens. What is going on?

Guilt or Innocence Does Not Really Matter

You may be thinking as many Americans do, if you are in jail you are there for a reason. The fact is some people in jail are guilty of crimes but have yet to be convicted. Some people are not guilty of crimes, have not been to court yet, and have not been convicted. The fact is we have a lot of people that are sitting in jail in the US that are being that presumption of innocence that we all grew up hearing so much about. Is innocent until proven guilty just a catchy slogan for our legal system and not something that is actually practiced?

Why you would remain in jail after an arrest waiting for trial if you have not been convicted of a crime? Why would just being charged with a crime be enough to hold you in jail? It sounds absolutely archaic in nature, like a practice you would hear about in a developing country, not something that happens here. Are we not the land of the free and home of the brave that has a legal system that is a model for countries striving for democracy around the globe? Why are people sitting in jail when they have not been convicted of a crime? Two words sum it up. Bail bonds system.

Community legal services and activists are fighting back against the bail bond system. They are vocally opposed to the unfair system that keeps mostly poor people incarcerated when they have not been convicted of a crime.

Arrest and Bail

When you are charged with a crime, you are arrested, and brought before a judge or a magistrate. Every crime except capital murder charges makes you eligible for bail. Bail bonds require a cash exchange, property exchange, or some other collateral to ensure that the defendant returns to court. What happens if you do not have anything of value including the cash to cover the bond? You stay in jail until you can.

Except there is another option. You can connect with a bail bond company that will “write” the bond for you. Unfortunately, bail bond services are not free. You see, you have to pay a percentage of the cash bond to the bond agent. Now, if you don’t have any money, and you don’t have anything of substantial value, what do you do? How do you pay the bail company? You take on debt. You work out an agreement with the bail bond agent to pay money that you do not have in the first place over time. What if you fall behind on your payments? You go back to jail.

Here is the real kicker. If you pay for a bail bond without an agent, go through the process, and attend all your court dates, you get your money back. If you go through a bail agent that 10%-15% of the bond that you have to pay upfront in cash, you never see it again. Bankruptcy cannot dismiss the money you owe, nothing can stop those payments, except going back to jail.

Let’s recap. If you are well off enough to pay your own bail bond, you get your money back. If you are too poor to pay your own bond, you pay 10% -15% of the face value of the bond and you never get the money back. Seems like a terrible double standard doesn’t it?

Of course justice inequity between the wealthy and the poor does not end with the bail situation. We could probably go on for days about the inequality in the court system. When you are wealthy you can easily afford the best criminal defense attorney. When you are poor you cannot, especially when you are making payments to the bond agent.

Sure, community legal services can provide you with a lawyer, but you can be sure that public defense lawyers are overworked, extremely underpaid, and are stretched very thin. Now let’s circle back to the bail problem.

If you are poor and you are making payments to the bail bond agent who got you out of jail in the first place, imagine if those payments could be used for defending yourself. What if you were not forced into that extra debt?

Community legal services throughout the country are teaming up with activists to change how things are done. They are pointing out the obvious like why are there 450,000 people sitting in jail that have not been convicted of a crime?

Mass Incarceration

It is not just people on the outside that are scratching their head when they read this and wondering; how it is that someone that has not had “due process” something we are all guaranteed under the constitution sitting in jail? How?

Any law firm can tell you that not only is it unfair to keep people in jail because they can not pay to get out, but in the larger scope of things, it is a constitutional violation, and against their civil rights to hold them. While the constitution does not specifically list bail amounts, the eighth amendment (part of the bill of rights) does specifically state that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Of course, this does leave quite a bit open to interpretation. For example, is $100 excessive, or is $10,000 excessive? The answer is it all depends on who you are, what your income level is, and whether or not you are able to pull that money out and pay.

Unfortunately, it would seem that our current system fully punishes the poor for being poor. The United States is the world leader when it comes to incarceration. At any given time, there are about 2.2 million people are incarcerated. You have to ask yourself if the US is a world leader in incarceration does that mean that the US is a more dangerous place to live? Is there more crime in the United States? The answer is no there is no more crime in the United States than say China, Russia, Italy, or Spain. There has been a 500% increase in incarcerations over the last 40 years, while the crime rate has not elevated nearly as much. Changes to policy and sentencing laws have incarcerated more people than ever before.

Poor are incarcerated at a rate of 10 times that of the wealthy. Black men are incarcerated at a rate of one out of three that have been charged with a crime, while white men are incarcerated at a rate of one out of seventeen men charged. You may be thinking that this is not an issue that really affects you or your community. Think again. The cost of mass incarceration comes with a tab of about $14 billion each year that the American taxpayer has to pick up. That $14 billion in costs only covers pre-trial incarceration costs.

A person that is held in jail for pretrial is far more likely to enter a plea of guilty whether they are innocent or not because of the promise of a lighter sentence if they do. That of course, increases the cost of incarceration to the American taxpayer. The bail system really makes things more expensive for everyone.

The Bail Project and community legal services are trying to even the playing field for anyone that has been arrested and cannot afford bail.

The Bail Project: What it is And How it is Changing Things

The Bail Project is an organization with one intent. They focus on disrupting mass incarceration by paying bail for individuals to help them get out of jail, defend themselves, and get the legal counsel that they deserve. The first step in changing a system sometimes requires that you play within the realm of that system.

The Bail Project is on a mission to end the inhumane cash bond system and improve the pre-trial system so that no matter your income level you have the fair trial that you deserve. The premise of the project is that donations that are used to pay bail for those that cannot afford it can be recycled over and over again.

In other words, a donation does not just help a single person. The bail is paid for an individual, the individual goes to court, the case is finished, the money is returned to the project, and helps the next person. This is a fully sustainable model that has far-reaching potential.

The efforts of the bail project and community legal services are changing the inadequate justice system, one person, at a time. They are also getting the word out and raising awareness that people are worth the investment of a second chance. That every American is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law regardless of their income level, race, or religion.

The Bail Project started out as the Bronx Freedom Fund. It was started by an attorney that worked with community legal services, that saw that this system really just was not working for anyone. The idea has caught on with more community legal services across the country that see the inequality of the system day in and day out, more criminal defense lawyers are taking note of the value of this program, and more people that are unjustly incarcerated are getting help with bail.

What started as an idea at a kitchen table from an attorney that was providing community legal services has become a full-blown national movement and evolved into the Bail Project. Not only is it a popular cause, but here is the secret, it really works. Getting people out of jail and giving them the chance to fight and make changes in their lives has been proven time and time again to really work.

The Success of the Bail Project

No one can dispute the success of the bail project. They have the statistical data to prove that bail is nothing but a tool to incarcerate people without just cause. Here are some of the statistics that they share:

  • A full 96% of the people that they pay bail for come to court and see their case all the way through to the end.
  • Less than 2% of the people that they have helped received an active jail sentence (learn more about this below)
  • 50% of the people that the Bail Project has helped have had their cases dismissed.

A startling 90% of the people that are incarcerated because of the inability to pay bail will plead guilty to their charge. Why? What would you do to get back home to your family faster? If you have no other options than to take a lesser sentence for pleading guilty and you only have access to an overworked community legal services team wouldn’t you do or say whatever you needed to, to get home? Of course, you would.

It is astounding to think that 50% of the cases were dismissed. That means that those people if not for help from the Bail Project may still be sitting in jail on charges that could never have been proven. Additionally, many of those people who had their cases dismissed would have pled guilty to a crime they may not have committed.

It is an atrocity to think that money plays such a huge role in our justice system. Join the cause by donating and do your part along with community legal services, The Bail Project, and other interested parties to make some changes.

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