Pretrial Incarceration: A Debtor's Prison


On July 3, New York Times Columnist Ethan Bronner wrote a piece on the unfairness and possible unconstitutionality of private probation companies. A week later, an Alabama Judge temporarily shut the system down. These private institutions had been given the ability to not only assess and collect fees, but also incarcerate someone if they could not pay. The article made very clear that these private companies weren’t doing anyone any good. There are striking similarities between these private probation companies and bail bondsmen, except for one glaring difference—bail bondsmen deal with people prior to being found guilty.

Our current system of using money bail and bail bondsmen is a system that punishes individuals before determination of guilt is found. Their nonrefundable deposits are both a punishment and requirement for freedom. Bail hits the poor especially hard, they may not have the $1,000 or even $100 to pay a bondsman to get out of jail, and so they will remain there for weeks or months while supposedly being presumed innocent. Every day in America almost two-thirds of individuals in our local jails are awaiting trial and the only crime they have been found guilty of is not being able to afford to pay a bail bondsman.

The Pretrial Justice Institute commends Judge Hub Harrington for his role in putting an end to private probation companies who prey on some of the least advantaged among us. Judge Harrington referred to the business of these private probation companies as a “debtors’ prison” and “disgraceful.”  This “debtors’ prison” isn’t just happening under private probation companies. The setting of money bail under current bail practices leaves defendants with two options, pay the bondsmen or remain in “debtors’ prison.”

We encourage Judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to not just look to private probation companies, but for-profit bail bondsmen as well. Jurisdictions need to begin to move away from the antiquated system of money bail and to begin using evidence-based and constitutional methods of dealing with individuals awaiting trial. As money is taken out of the equation of whether to release an individual pretrial, the system will become fairer, more just, and produce safer communities.

Comments are closed.