What is the purpose of bail?

This post was originally published 9/27/12 on the Just Policy blog.

Let’s clear something up right away: Bail and money bail are not the same thing. Bail refers to any condition of pretrial release. Lots of conditions of release have nothing to do with money; supervision and monitoring, for instance. It’s money bail, specifically, that requires someone to pay an amount of money to get released pretrial, making a person’s financial resources a determining factor in whether or not that person sits in jail.

The bail system in Baltimore relies almost exclusively on money bail. Last spring, I interviewed thirteen experts on the Baltimore bail system, and I asked all of them the following question:

What is the purpose of bail?

What I heard over and over again was this: Bail is supposed to do two things. One, make sure that someone comes back to court for their trial. Two, protect public safety.

Wait a second. How does a system that relies on money bail protect public safety? Money bail doesn’t keep violent people locked up; it just keeps poor people locked up. People who may pose a threat to public safety can still get out of jail; they just need to have the money to do it.

And that’s just one of many problems when it comes to bail in Baltimore.

Seven of the thirteen people I interviewed were individuals whose lives had been directly impacted by the Baltimore bail system. The offenses that they were charged with ranged from probation violations to attempted murder. Some of the folks I spoke with had sat in jail for six weeks or six months before going to trial. One person had waited an entire year. One whole year in jail before he was even tried in court. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?

The people who shared their stories with me talked about the impact that waiting in jail for so long had on their lives. They lost their jobs; they weren’t able to continue their education; they couldn’t provide for their families.

One person said that although he has broken the law before, most of his arrests have been for offenses he didn’t commit. Still, he has almost always pleaded guilty, even for the things he didn’t do. Why? He knew that he couldn’t come up with the money for bail, which would mean he would be sitting in jail—indefinitely. Taking the plea meant getting out sooner. A money bail system like Baltimore’s makes people choose between defending their innocence and keeping a job, staying in school, and feeding their kids. Which would you choose?

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