John Oliver, HBO’s best critic of America’s broken-ass political and economic systems since The Wire, turned his attention this week to one of the brokenest-ass systems of all: the way we handle bail for people accused of crimes.
Oliver throws up an alarming stat from New Jersey, circa 2013, where nearly 40% of inmates were locked up solely because they were unable to make bail while awaiting trial. If you dig a little deeper into the report he’s citing, you’ll find their average time languishing in lockup is 10 months. And that’s without being found guilty of any crime.
In fact, many of them just plead guilty (even if they’re not) just so they can get out, rather than waiting in jail for a trial date and staying locked up while they try to fight the case. This, of course, has the downside of making them pay fines (which we’ve established they probably can’t afford), go back to jail, and carry the stigma of being a “convicted criminal” for life.
Meanwhile, eccentric multimillionaire Robert “I Killed Them All, Of Course” Durst just posts bond and shrugs, “Goodbye, $250,000.” Nice system.
And don’t get Oliver started on your friendly neighborhood bail bondsman. Even if you’re found not guilty, you’re going to owe him 10-15 percent of your bond. Not such a great situation to be in when the entire reason for using a commercial bail bondsman is that you’re broke.
It sure makes for great reality TV when they get to send bounty hunters after you, though. Because if there’s one thing America will always rule at, it’s efficiently alchemizing human misery into entertainment.
But how to fix a bail system that punishes people before they’re ever convicted? Oliver points to a policy used by federal courts and in Washington, D.C., where, unless the defendant is deemed a flight risk, money bonds must be set to an amount they can afford.
In Washington, DC, nearly 88% of defendants are released non-financially. In the rare cases where judges set financial bond (4%), it is nearly always cash bond. In our system, there’s no need for a commercial bondsman with the “extra financial incentive” to ensure a defendant’s appearance. Over the past five years, 88% of released defendants on average have made all scheduled court appearances and 88% on average remained arrest free while in the community pending trial. Ninety-nine percent (99%) of released defendants were not rearrested on a violent crime while in the community.
Hey, imagine that: a system where we let people go home, maybe give them an ankle monitor or send someone to check in on them, remind them of their court dates, and trust them to appear. That’s so crazy, it just might work.