At any given time in the United States, the number of people in jail is approximately eight hundred twenty-two times the population of my hometown.
Jails exist to hold people for a very short period of time. In fact, the average stay in jail is less than a month, total, whether or not you’re convicted. Oh, did I not mention that part? There’s about 650 thousand people in jail right now who haven’t even been tried. Somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of people in jail are presumed innocent.
See, the point of jail, originally, was that if someone was arrested and you absolutely could not trust them to show up for their trial, you’d put them in jail for a minute until you could have that trial and figure out if they were guilty or not. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, all the problems with the carceral state. If you want to deal with that, read this much longer thing over here.)
So most people should not be in jail between their arrest and their trial, full stop. The system wasn’t designed for it.
But what we’ve got now is this fucked up money bail system. Here’s the thing: the minute you set money bail, you have agreed that the person poses no danger to their community, because that condition of release? It’s got nothing to do with community safety. And? The average felony bail is $5,000. About half the population in the US cannot reliably come up with $400 on short notice. There’s a little bit of a dichotomy in there.
If you’re not let out on money bail, you might be let out with an ankle monitor. That’s a GPS tracking device that may or may not accurately reflect that you’ve restricted your movements to your home and work. And it costs you – not taxpayers, but you, the person trying to live your life, $5-25 per day. Is it better than sitting in jail? fuck yes it is. But better than in jail doesn’t mean good, or even acceptable. There’s other problems with the monitor too, but let’s just add up that monthly cost: it’s more than the $400 you couldn’t come up with in the first place. But I digress.
So time is money. Let’s figure out what happens in the 25 days you can expect to be in jail:
Day 1: If you’re lucky, you might have your hearing now and be released. If you’re very lucky, you’re in California or New Jersey or Washington, DC, which don’t use money bail. Otherwise, cough up $5,000. Oh. You don’t have that money. Too bad, cause the court would give it back to you when you showed up for trial like the rest of the 92-98% of people who don’t flee.
Day 2: So you’ve got a bail bond company. That means they’ll put up the money you needed, and you’ll pay them anywhere from $20 to 20% of the money bail set in your case, nonrefundable. Let’s call that figure $500. It’s ok. You can pay in installments.
Choose your own adventure! Do you owe this bond company $500 in installments or do you try your luck with the court, arguing that you’re indigent?
It’s Day 3 and you’ve probably lost your job by now, so you can’t pay the bond company anyway. You decide to throw yourself on the mercy of the court. After all, your odds of prevailing at your trial are significantly better if you’re released now.
Or you could plead guilty, to get back to work. Your rent is due and this week is shot. Except that nets you a felony conviction, so good luck getting a job. Maybe you really SHOULD have taken up armed robbery.
Days 4 and 5 are a weekend. No hearings available for you.
On Day 6 the court agrees to let you go, wearing an ankle monitor that will cost you a nonrefundable $20/day. You make $58/day at your minimum wage job, assuming you get to work a full shift. And then you owe taxes. Rent. Food? Better hope you don’t get sick this month. You can’t miss the time off work anyway.
Also, you’re going to owe court fees. Did I mention that? After court costs and probation fees are added, the real price of a $250 drug possession fine this past year in Tennessee was $2,231; a DUI in Missouri, where the statutory fine is $500, will cost you $3,899.
A third of the people who die in jail die in the first seven days.
We can’t afford this.