As you’ve probably heard, the concept of bail is being challenged by advocates who claim that the system disproportionately punishes those who can’t afford a bail bond. It supposedly does so through setting bail amounts that those of lower socioeconomic status can’t afford, but wealthier people can. Opponents of bail believe that society would be better served by eliminating bail altogether and replacing it with a system of “risk assessment tools” that use algorithms and other demographic data to decide whether a defendant should be immediately cited out of custody (given a citation and told to return to court at the appointed date and time) OR, if the risk assessment tools deem the individual to be dangerous to society if allowed to remain free, the individual would instead be held in custody without bail until they can have their day in court.
Unfortunately, several of these “risk assessment tools” have turned out to be wildly racist.
As a result, some law enforcement agencies – including the LAPD – have decided to scrap some of the tools because they disproportionately approve the incarceration of people of color over white defendants. Ironically, these data-driven policing programs were intended to take some of the decision making out of the hands of officers and thereby decrease the potential for prejudice to get in the way. As it turns out, some of the programs are even worse.
As a matter of fact, many high profile individuals and organizations, including twenty-seven leading academics from universities such as MIT, Princeton, and UC Berkely, in addition to Google, IBM, Apple, Amazon (and others) have come out against efforts for bail reform. Tech companies believe the algorithm would be useful for predicting what certain groups would or would not do, but are unable to do so when it comes to individuals, thereby making its risk assessment capabilities moot.
The reason bail exists is to allow a defendant to remain free from police custody while providing a financial incentive for them to return to court to face trial. Bail is generally set based on the severity of the crime that the arrestee is being charged with. For minor, non-violent misdemeanors, bail is set at only a few thousand dollars – if not less. Additionally, when a defendant being accused of a minor crime goes before a judge, they’re often released on their own recognizance without any bail having to be paid at all. The purpose of bail isn’t to penalize the poor who commit crimes; it’s to provide an incentive for individuals being charged with serious crimes (that carry serious penalties) to show up for court.
The Benefits of Bail
The bail bond industry doesn’t just help a person who is accused of a crime get out of jail. While that is a major part of the business, the bail industry also serves a variety of the criminal justice system’s needs out of the bail bond industry’s own pocket. When a person is let of custody on bail, it is the bail bondsman’s responsibility to keep tabs on the defendant and make sure they attend court at the appointed date and time. As such, the bail industry provides a very high level of security and supervision (at no cost to the taxpayer) of the defendants that are out of custody on bail. Should bail be eliminated, this duty will fall to a police force that’s already stretched thin. Counties and cities would need to hire additional law enforcement officers to keep tabs on defendants awaiting trial, as well as to track them down if they try to run – a task and cost the bail bond industry currently fulfills (once again, out of their own pockets).
Accountability is foundational to the American criminal justice system. Already there have been multiple instances where defendants who were arrested on one crime were let out of custody only to commit another crime within minutes. One individual in Gardena was arrested, cited, and released three times in the same day. Another in the Santa Clarita Valley was arrested, cited, and released twice.
What we are seeing right now is the beginning of a post-bail California. Defendants guilty of violent crimes may be let out or detained in custody based more on the color of their skin than on the crime they committed. Furthermore, criminals are already showing they don’t take their arrests or crimes seriously because they know they will be released, virtually unpunished. As recently seen, they end up committing the same crimes and released once again, the very same day.