“Don’t tell me your priorities,” the old saw goes, “show me how you spend your money and I’ll know them.” For many jurisdictions, the priority is jails—which nationwide cost more than $20 billion every year.1 Cutting costs was among the greatest concerns of nearly half of jails in a 2015 survey by the National Association of Counties (NACo).The same survey also found that most respondents’ jail populations were “low-risk” – that is, people who were likely to show up in court and not get arrested on new charges if released.
In a growing number of places, budget officials are recognizing that secured money bail, which creates a barrier to release for poor and working class people, is part of the problem. Both the comptroller of New York City and the treasurer of San Francisco, for example, recently released reports highlighting the financial impact of money bond on jail costs and the community.
These studies specifically address three main topics:
The Public Cost of Private Bail: A Proposal to Ban Bail Bonds in NYC, from the New York City Comptroller’s office, studied the cost of locking up people who would eventually gain release. In FY 2017, the city saw 33,000 admissions to jail of people who could not pay bail at the first hearing—of these, 15,000 were subsequently released. Overall, New York City spent $100 million detaining people solely because they were unable to pay bail; $10 million on people who eventually paid and were release—most within three days. Do the Math: Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco, from San Francisco’s Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector, praised the nonprofit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project as an effective way to save money: In 2016, the project screened over 8,000 people and secured the release for more than 1,500 defendants waiting for trial, saving the costs of an estimated 152,000 jail bed days.
Both reports also noted the consequences of a poorly regulated bail bond industry. San Francisco found that when bail bond companies challenge their obligation to pay following a failure to appear, these challenges are granted without contest 75% of the time. Between 2015 and 2016, only $128,727 in forfeited bonds was collected from bail bond agencies (compared to more than $300 million in bonds written during the same time)—a large portion came from a single $80,000 bond. In New York, meanwhile, private bail bondsman collected fees over the legal amount and failed to return collateral as required. Additionally, the report noted concerns about delays in release, even after the person charged had paid fees and posted collateral, because for-profit bail bond companies failed to post bonds in a timely fashion.
The reports document the enormous costs money bail imposes on communities, particularly the less affluent and communities of color. Non-refundable bail bond fees drain $10-15 million dollars from such communities every year. As a way of demonstrating the disparate impact of money bail, the San Francisco researchers calculated the per capita burden. While the amount paid in bail bonds is $18 per San Francisco resident, the per capita burden for African American residents is $120; for white residents, it is $10. The New York report, meanwhile, found that non-refundable bail bond fees extracted between $16 million and $27 million from arrested people and their families; individuals detained in those jails collectively lose about $28 million in wages every year because they have not posted bail and are incarcerated.
Discussions about justice are essential. However, the scarcity of public resources is what often brings different parties to the table to discuss change. High-quality budget analyses can help get the conversation started.
1Vera Institute, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration (May 2015). http://bit.ly/2FjSj4g