Wealth should not determine whether someone accused of a minor crime is free while they await their due process.
The policy of demanding cash bail for low-level crimes reaches its long overdue end in Philadelphia.
In light of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s move to stop requiring those being held for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies to post bail, many inmates in the city’s jails are hopeful that this new policy could be applied retroactively to get them out of jail faster than would otherwise be possible. According to local coverage of the topic, this decision may help the City of Philadelphia reach their goal of reducing incarceration rates.
This decision is a positive step for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia. As I argue in my article about the role parole plays in federal prisons, rehabilitation is a vital part of criminal justice. While the topic at hand is about jail time being served by those pending trial, rather than about prison time for those who have been convicted, the same concept holds: criminal justice should be about protecting the innocent, and meting out an appropriate and fair combination of help and punishment to those who have been accused or convicted of crimes.
How can we justify jailing the accused before they are tried and found guilty in a court of law because they don’t have enough money?
Although this is a complex problem, some parts of it are relatively clear. For example, when someone is charged with possession of marijuana, or excessive speeding, they face impossible choices. They are forced to choose between sitting in jail for weeks and therefore losing their job, or paying a $1,000 bail and not being able to afford food for their family that month. This is when the criminal justice system is not working as it should. The system lacks any sensible reason for forcing people to make such damaging and difficult choices simply because they are accused of minor crimes. The process of detaining people accused of minor crimes unless they can afford to pay bail has no place in a system that ought to be concerned with keeping people safe and holding them accountable for their actions; rather, this process may place hurdles in front of them that will only make them more likely to commit future crimes in the future upon their release.
It’s important to bear in mind that people serving time in jail pending trial have merely been accused of committing a crime. All too often, victims of racial or some other form of profiling end up behind bars for crimes they did not commit. There is a tendency among many Americans, both those working within the system and observing its proceedings from the outside, to decide that someone’s incarceration is deserved because they fit common stereotypes about what a criminal looks like. Too many people care about due process until the person in question is poor and black or brown. Saying “they probably did it” is good enough for a startling number of Americans in these cases. This truth, compounded with the severe impact being jailed or paying an expensive bail can have on people’s livelihoods, is all the more reason that the district attorney’s new policy is going to positively change the lives of Philadelphia’s citizens.
Pre-trial confinement for minor crimes is expensive and unjust
Another factor to consider is that holding people in jail for low-level offenses places an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, whose money could be put to better use improving schools or highways, or simply remaining in taxpayers’ pockets. Local governments will always need to allocate money to run detention centers, but if fewer people are needlessly jailed, these costs can decrease. If Philadelphia jails are cheaper to run, there will be more funds for the city’s schools and libraries. The rate of incarceration for high school dropouts is significantly higher than high school graduations. Education deters crime. Therefore, it stands to reason that Philadelphia’s elimination of bail for misdemeanors has the potential to reduce the number of crimes that are committed in the first place. While it will take years to see if an effect like this occurs, the wait will be worth it if the outcome is lower crime rates. This will better Philadelphia for all of its residents.
It’s clear that, at the end of the day, detaining those accused of committing minor crimes unless they can post often unaffordable bails harms more citizens than it helps. No one wins tax payer dollars are used to detain people who are unlikely to pose a threat to those around them. The elimination of bail for those accused of minor crimes is going to help all Philadelphians– regardless of their wealth or criminal record.