Three research reports released earlier this month add substantially to what we know about the harms caused by money bail. Research is crucial to building momentum for reform and countering the still-too-common notion that bail reform addresses “a problem we’re not sure exists.”
Here is that latest research showing—yet again—that there IS a problem, and it is money bail:
The Heavy Costs of High Bail: Evidence from Judge Randomization, a Columbia Law and Economics Working Paper, describes how assigning money bail to people accused of crime in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh increases the likelihood of conviction by 12% and increases recidivism by 4%. The authors found that the use of money bail is not effective—it “does not seem to increase the probability that a defendant appears at trial,” and actually makes us all less safe.
A University of Pennsylvania Law School Working Paper, Distortion of Justice: How the Inability to Pay Bail Affects Case Outcomes, reported that people arrested for crimes in Philadelphia and detained due to their inability to pay money bail face up to a 30% increase in convictions—driven by increased guilty pleas—and an additional 18 months of incarceration compared to those who are able to afford bail, at a taxpayer cost of about $14,000 per person.
Finally, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released an analysis of national data that gives context to the Columbia and University of Pennsylvania papers. In Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time, PPI found that “most of the people who are unable to meet bail fall into the poorest third of society.” According to the report, “the median bail bond amount in this country represents eight months of income for the typical detained defendant.”
This work, on it’s own, should be enough to inspire jurisdictions to improve pretrial justice practice and replace failing money bail. And increasingly, they are: Smart Pretrial, the Safety and Justice Challenge, 3DaysCount, and numerous other projects, are making pretrial practice more equitable and effective all across the U.S.
The practice of money bail is damaging to court systems, individuals and communities, and makes us all less safe. In an era of evidence-based practice, it’s time we use the evidence at hand to guide us toward safer, more fair, and more effective pretrial justice.
To see a collection of research describing what works and what doesn’t in pretrial, visit the Info Stop on our website.