Sen. Kamala Harris of California has teamed up with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to take on the challenge of bail reform.
Introducing the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017, Harris and Paul are bringing much needed attention to the inequitable and unjust practice of keeping people incarcerated as they await trial simply because they lack the financial resources to buy their freedom.
To Harris, bail reform is fundamentally about economic justice and restoring the notion that America is a place that doesn’t treat people differently simply because of their economic status. “It’s a flawed system,” Harris told me, “and frankly we need to work to get rid of money bail as the only indicator if someone has their freedom or stays in jail.”
Toward that end, Harris and Paul’s bipartisan proposal is to provide grants to state and local governments to replace money bail systems with individualized, risk-based assessments that evaluate a person’s flight risk and threat of criminal activity if released.
Noting that taxpayers already spend $14 billion a year to incarcerate people who haven’t been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial, Harris argues Americans aren’t seeing the return on investment from an effective justice system.
A growing body of evidence proves she’s correct.
Every day, approximately 450,000 Americans, and tens of thousands of Californians, remain in local jails primarily because they cannot afford to be bailed out as they await trial. This has been a problem that has developed over many years. According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of local jail growth since 2000 (an increase of 123,000 inmates) can be attributed to an increase in the unconvicted population.
As jail populations have risen, so has the practice of tying a person’s freedom to their ability to pay. According to a 2009 report from the BJS reviewing large urban counties, about 9 in 10 detained defendants had a bail amount set but were unable to meet the requirements. Meanwhile, from 1990 to 2009, the proportion of pretrial releases involving financial conditions rose from 37 to 61 percent.
With growing populations, there are naturally growing direct costs of incarceration, such as paying for more jails and more staff. In 2014 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, Sacramento County spent $44.3 million incarcerating people who were eligible for bail but didn’t pay. Over the same period, Orange and San…