Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Wednesday introduced legislation to end money bail on the federal level and create incentives for states to follow suit.
The No Money Bail Act is the latest example of the push from the left to tackle criminal justice reform. It would prohibit money bail in federal criminal cases, provide grants to states that wish to implement alternate pretrial systems, and withhold grant funding from states that continue using cash bail systems.
Additionally, the bail reform “requires a study three years after implementation to ensure the new alternate systems are also not leading to disparate detentions rates,” according to a summary of the bill provided by Sanders’s office.
“It has always been clear that we have separate criminal justice systems in this country for the poor and for the rich,” the summary reads. “A wealthy person charged with a serious crime may get an ankle monitor and told not to leave the country; a poor person charged with a misdemeanor may sit in a jail cell. And this disproportionately affects minorities — fifty percent of all pretrial detainees are Black or Latinx.”
In a statement accompanying the release of his bill, Sanders said, “Poverty is not a crime and hundreds of thousands of Americans, convicted of nothing, should not be in jail today because they cannot afford cash bail. In the year 2018, in the United States, we should not continue having a ‘debtor prison’ system. Our destructive and unjust cash bail process is part of our broken criminal justice system – and must be ended.”
The idea of eliminating money bail is controversial, even among Democrats, so it is unlikely that the legislation will soon be enacted into law. Indeed, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced a similar measure in the House in 2016 and 2017, but his bills gained little traction. Last year, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a measure to encourage states to reform bail practices, though they did not go as far as calling to eliminate cash bail on the federal level.
Still, these efforts represent a growing sense of urgency among lawmakers to address the racial disparities that plague the criminal justice system. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last month introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act. The House passed a tepid prison reform bill that was pushed by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in May, and the Senate has introduced similar legislation.
For-profit companies are “making a fortune” off indigent defendants, according to the summary of the Sanders bill. Indeed, the for-profit bail industry makes between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion a year, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a 2017 report. An inability to afford bail leaves defendants across the country languishing in pretrial detention bars for extended periods of time; in 2014, about 60 percent of people in U.S. jails had not been convicted of a crime, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported.
“Pretrial detention should be based on whether or not someone truly should not be freed before their trial,” the summary continued. “It should not depend on how much money they have, or what kind of mood the judge is in on a given day, or even what judge the case happens to come before. We also must insure that jurisdictions do not eliminate cash bail but find pretexts to continue unfairly locking people up before trial.”
State and local governments have made similar efforts in recent years. New Jersey has been at the forefront of the bail reform movement, largely eliminating its cash bail system last year. District attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan in January ordered prosecutors not to request bail in most misdemeanor cases. And Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner also fulfilled one of his high-profile campaign promises when he announced an end of cash bail requirements for low-level offenses in February.