Of the many surprising statistics about America’s money bail system, this one may be the most astounding: More than 60 percent of people in America’s overcrowded jails are there because they can’t afford to pay their bail amount. That works out to roughly 450,000 Americans in jail daily, and how long they stay there can vary with waiting times for trials potentially lasting months (or sometimes, years).
The American money-bail system, which has been around since 1789, has ripple effect. Some reformers argue that poor defendants might plead guilty in order to be released. Others say that there are more effective alternatives to money bail, such as using a risk score or supervising defendants before trial. Concerns about the use of money in the bail system and the bail bond industry have also raised questions about America’s pretrial system and the way it affects the lives of unconvicted people.
A bail is set based on several factors: the severity of the crime, whether a defendant is a flight risk, and whether a defendant has a criminal record or has skipped trial in the past. Previous studies have found that pretrial detentions are a predictor of convictions and guilty pleas, as well as the likelihood of future crime. But that correlation might exist because some of the factors in the way bail is set are likely related to guilt—so correlations found between bail and convictions have been hard to interpret in the sense that past studies have not been able to pinpoint whether those negative outcomes are really due to bail being assigned.