The Criminalization of Poverty: Money Bail & Excessive Fines


“What has been demonstrated here is that usually only one factor determines whether a defendant stays in jail before he comes to trial. That factor is not guilt or innocence. It is not the nature of the crime. It is not the character of the defendant. That factor is, simply, money. How much money does the defendant have?”

~ Former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, August 4, 1964

Our money bail system keeps the poorest, instead of the most dangerous, defendants behind bars. More than 60% of jail inmates are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted, and over 30% cannot afford to post bail to be released pending trial. To post bond, a bond agent takes a fee in exchange for guaranteeing the amount of the bail on the defendant’s behalf. Most defendants have to pay the fee over weeks or months of installments, which can outlast the criminal case and include steep late fees or require signing over collateral worth many times what is owed. If they go into default they can trigger annual interest rates as high as 30 percent.

These fees that are “often scraped together by multiple family members, siphon millions from poor, predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities”, as Black and Hispanic defendants are much more likely to be held on bail than white defendants. Frequently, those being held on bail have simply been accused of low-level offenses. 75% of pretrial detainees have been charged only with drug or property crimes. Those who are unable to post bail are adversely affected in their personal lives and face significant losses including employment, access to benefits, custody of children, and housing.

Money bail “encourages people who are not guilty of crimes to plead to crimes they haven’t committed: Either they plea or they have to sit in jail, sometimes for years. [As a result] DAs and police are able to criminalize people without expending much resources: Less than three percent of all cases go to trial in this country, and that’s largely because of the money bail system.” - Marbre Stahly-Butts, co-director of Law for Black Lives. “Black men are twice as likely to have a bond set on them, and the bond is often twice as high for the same crime.”

Further, “to raise revenue and make up for budget shortfalls, cities, states, courts, and prosecutors levy hefty fines at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system. For those who are poor, these fees can be catastrophic. An inability to pay can lead to a suspended license, additional fees, and even jail.”


The Rosenberg Foundation’s “Justice Hub” Policy Toolkit

Articles, reports, videos and toolkits assembled by the Rosenberg Foundation on the movement to reform the money bail system, as well as a list of the organizations leading the movement.

Prepared by Candice S. Petty, Esq. for 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center © 2018

 (c) Copyright 2019 | 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center 

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