What Is Bail in Low-Income Communities?

Bail in Low-Income Communities

Bail is money or property that a person accused of a crime has to put up in order to be released from jail until their case comes to trial. It’s designed to ensure that they show up for pretrial hearings and their trial. If they do, the bail is returned to them at the end of the case. But if they fail to show up or violate other bail conditions, their money or property can be forfeited to the court.

When judges set bail, they are supposed to take into account whether it will pose an undue hardship on the defendant and their loved ones. But courts often ignore this requirement and allow bail to be set at levels that are too high for many people. As a result, people who can’t afford to pay their bail are stuck in the system: they stay in jail until their case is resolved or they plead guilty, often without even being fully informed of what charges they face.

The most common way of paying bail is by cash. A judge sets the bail amount at the accused’s first court appearance, called an arraignment. Defendants can pay the cash bail amount in the courthouse, and doing so keeps them out of jail until their next appearance.

What Is Bail in Low-Income Communities?

Defendants who can’t pay their cash bail may use a commercial bond to get out of jail. These are usually set in higher amounts than the cash bail and require the accused to pay a non-refundable fee, typically 10% or less of the total bail amount, to a for-profit company called a bail bondsman. These fees can be as much as a month’s rent or more for families living in poverty.

In addition to requiring a private company to pay the bail, commercial bonds also require that defendants (or their loved ones) promise to return to court as required by the law. In 2020, a total of $226 million was posted in New York City Supreme Court cases through commercial bail and partially secured surety bonds. This equates to more than $1000 per person charged in those cases and is an example of how bail disproportionately affects low-income communities of color.

The New York City Department of Justice has proposed a reform to bail that would reduce the amount of money a person would need to put up to get out of jail, and make it easier for families to pay. But there are still many hurdles to overcome. Until then, New Yorkers facing criminal charges are left with an impossible choice: go to jail until their case is resolved or pay a lot of money to a for-profit bail bond company and hope they don’t miss any of their court appearances. New York’s families can’t afford that choice. They need a better solution.

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