The Poorest—and Their Children—Pay the Highest Price


This time of year has many of us thinking about the children in our lives, even more so than usual. Holidays have much to do with kids, to share a sense of joy and wonder and to create memories with them. Maybe you are thinking about a gift that they will enjoy in particular, or a family tradition you want to share.

But for children and families in poverty, the holidays can also be a source of stress. The holidays can mean a time of hunger, as children lose access to free and reduced-lunch programs at school. Parents must try to work around child care issues. Heating bills can tax an already stretched family budget.

It’s hard not to think of these families after reading the new report from the Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA and the ACLU. The Price for Freedom: Bail in the City of L.A. showed that billions of dollars were levied in Los Angeles from 2012-2016, and much of that amount was focused on the poorest zip codes in the area. These zip codes have enormous concentrations of child poverty. While California’s child poverty rate is 22% (close to the national average of 21%), four of the five top zip codes affected by bail bonds had child poverty rates closer to 50%.

There are many ways to consider how money bail and its inevitable outcome, unnecessary detention, affects the wellbeing of children. When parents are locked up because of money bail, families must make the impossible choice of either finding the money to release their family member and going without some other necessity, or leaving their loved one to remain locked up. A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation stated 65% of families with a family member in prison or jail said they could not meet basic needs, and having an incarcerated parent has been identified as a childhood stressor on par with abuse, domestic violence or divorce. In other cases, when no parent remains to take care of the children, extended family or the foster care system must get involved. There is also the lost opportunity cost to the community. The Maryland study estimated that the $22.6 million in fees that Baltimore’s two poorest zip codes paid to the for-profit bail bond industry was enough to provide a year of childcare for 2,800 prekindergarten children in the city.

Childhood poverty and its effects is a complex issue, and solving unnecessary pretrial detention is just one aspect. But certainly, leaving millions of dollars in the communities where they belong is a good start. While some for-profit bail bond agents will brag about serving multiple generations of families, a better legacy for families can be found in a pretrial system that honors fairness and justice, no matter how much money you have.

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