Cash Bail Reform Benefits Both Defendants and Taxpayers

Beacon Magazine and the Savannah Morning News explore the effects of racial and class discrimination in Savannah institutions and offer solutions to overcome the barriers that divide us.

A fundamental tenet of the US criminal justice system is its presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but 74% of those incarcerated in the US have not been convicted of a crime, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That’s more than 555,000 people every day whose freedom has been taken away without trial.

California has become the first state in the United States to completely eliminate its cash bond system. Josh King has this story.


This stems from our cash deposit system, which we have in common with only one other country in the world: the Philippines. Cash bail is an amount of money that a court determines a person accused of a crime must pay in order to be released until their trial date. It is meant as a guarantee to make sure they show up. While this may sound like a good idea in theory, in practice it creates a deeply unjust system that criminalizes poverty and disproportionately harms communities of color. Studies have also shown that it does not improve court appearance rates and actually increases crime.

Critics from across the political spectrum agree that the cash bail system discriminates against the poor and people of color. Equal Justice Under Law, an organization that sues governments to end discrimination based on wealth, explains:

JAIL VS. PRISONS: Jails, usually run by municipalities or counties, hold people accused of a crime pending trial. Prisons, which may be run by the state or the federal government, are the places where people found guilty by a court serve their sentences.

For hundreds of thousands of people arrested each year, the difference between freedom and prison depends solely on wealth. A wealthy person can buy their freedom before trial, keep their job and live at home while preparing their defense. An arrested person who is poor has to stay in jail for days, weeks, months or years until their case is solved.

With wealth disparities in the United States narrowing sharply along racial lines, coupled with the fact that people of color are more likely than white people to be arrested for the same or even lesser offenses, the cash bail system imposes disproportionate racial discrimination. and ethnicity. Additionally, black and Hispanic males are given 35% and 19% higher bail, respectively, than white males for similar crimes.

Even a few days in prison can have devastating consequences for people with limited resources. They may lose their jobs, their homes and even custody of their children. Given these enormous risks, people who cannot afford bail often plead guilty to spend less time behind bars, regardless of their guilt or innocence.

Studies also show that pretrial detention can increase the likelihood that a person will commit a crime after release. Research from the Arnold Foundation found that people in prison learn criminal behavior as their personality is reoriented to their environment, and the damage increases the longer they are detained. As such, pretrial detention may actually reduce public safety.

In addition, pretrial detention can be psychologically traumatic. When 16-year-old Kalief Browder was charged with stealing a backpack in New York, his family couldn’t pay his $3,000 bond. He remained in prison awaiting trial for three years, spending much of that time in solitary confinement. Shortly after prosecutors dropped the charges and he was released, Browder committed suicide.

The cash bond system is also very expensive for taxpayers. With more than 40,000 people behind bars in Georgia alone, state taxpayers pay an estimated $516 million a year to keep inmates in custody. People who lose their jobs or homes during the lockdown are likely to seek government assistance upon release, further increasing the burden on taxpayers.

Bail: An amount of money that a court determines a person accused of a crime must pay in order to be released until their trial date.

When a person cannot afford a bond, private surety companies often step in. These companies assume the bail obligation of the accused for a non-refundable fee, usually 10-15% of the bond amount. Collateral such as a car, house or valuables secures the rest. Defendants often repay surety companies in installments, which can result in ruinous interest rates.

Demorrea Tarver of Baltimore was arrested when he was 18 and his family agreed to an installment plan with a bond officer. Charges were dropped weeks after the arrest, but eight years later Tarver still owed more than the original bail amount despite making monthly payments.

Surety bonds are a lucrative business, bringing in around $2 billion a year. In addition to local surety agents, corporate insurers make up the private, for-profit surety industry. According to a study by Color of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the top nine bond insurers cover the vast majority of the estimated $14 billion in bonds the industry issues each year. One of them is Endeavor Capital, the owner of Port Logistics Group, which has a 315,000 square foot facility in Savannah.

The for-profit surety industry lobbied politicians and campaigned to protect their interests. According to, the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen has given $191,250 over the past 12 years to politicians, including State Senator William S. Cowsert and State Representative Micah Gravley, who sponsored a project bill to reverse some of Georgia’s cash bail reforms. Nationally, the industry spent $6.4 million lobbying state lawmakers between 2009 and 2017, and another $1.8 million in direct contributions to state campaigns.

MASS INCARCERATION: The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. The crime rate in the United States is about the same as it was in 1970, but its incarceration rate is five times higher than it was then. The use of pre-trial detention increased by 433% over the same period.

In 2018, Georgia passed legislation to reform the state’s cash bond practices, including requiring authorities setting bail to consider a person’s ability to pay. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled later in 2018 in a class action lawsuit challenging Georgia courts’ use of cash bail, finding “presumptively constitutional” a system in which all persons arrested are guaranteed release within 48 hours. A July 2020 ACLU study looked at how well 18 Georgia counties were complying with the 2018 reforms and found that none were fully compliant.

Meanwhile, a new law known as SB 402 will undo some of Georgia’s cash bail reform efforts, primarily by reducing the use of signature bonds — sometimes called “recognized release” — in which a person only incurs a financial penalty if they fail to appear in court for their trial. Governor Brian Kemp signed SB 402 in August 2020, and it is expected to go into effect January 1, 2021.

SB 402 will likely force Chatham County to expand its use of cash bail after years of using a signature bond system that released all misdemeanor inmates within 10 hours, unless they have been charged with domestic violence or driving under the influence. This will put taxpayers on the hook for the average $101,641 per year in housing and detention costs that the previous policy saved in Chatham County.

Those who oppose reducing cash bail fear it will reduce court appearance rates, but results from jurisdictions that have implemented reforms show otherwise. In Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC, and New Jersey, post-reform court appearance rates were comparable to, or even higher than, pre-reform rates.

This may be because cash bail fails to address the main obstacles to appearing in court. According to The Bail Project, people accused of crimes often miss court because they lack childcare or transportation, their employer won’t give them time off, or they have trouble navigating court systems. confusing. “Willful absconding from jurisdiction is a very rare cause of non-appearance,” explains The Bail Project, “and the system should not be designed around that scenario.”

There were more than 100 participants in the march to end cash bail on Wednesday afternoon.
Ben Tobin

As much as cash bail reform would be an important step toward addressing racial inequities in our criminal justice system, the issue is bigger than that. Americans generally believe that criminal justice is about punishment and that our system is the best way to keep us safe.

“The stories we tell ourselves about crime and reform are incredibly outdated, and we do more harm than good when we perpetuate the ‘tough on crime’ narrative,” observed Coco Papy, director of development and communications at Deep Center.

An international comparison reveals some interesting trends. Norway moved from punishment to rehabilitation 20 years ago. Significant reductions in recidivism rates followed. Compared to a recidivism rate of 68% within three years of release in the United States, Norway’s is about 25% within five years.

Many people processed through the criminal justice system have vulnerabilities that can make them prone to offending. Prison populations are characterized by high levels of self-harm and mental health problems, for example. With growing evidence that rehabilitation reduces crime and can be cost-effective, support may be more effective than punishment in reducing crime.



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