There was recently an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air discussing the issue of whether America is caught in a “vicious circle” of jailing the poor. That interview, along with a write up highlighting some of the issues, can be heard here. The report it is based on a report from the VERA Institute of Justice and can be found here.
Recently, there has been a lot of dialogue and a bipartisan effort to address criminal justice reform that’s focused on sentencing reform for non-violent offenders. While I applaud the concern and the effort on that front, that’s only the tip of the iceberg and unless we dig deeper, I’m afraid we’re missing a much larger problem in America today. The current system, even with sentencing reform for non-violent offenders, disproportionately punishes the poor and perpetuates the underlying problem. Effectively, cities and states around the country are criminalizing poverty.
The sentencing reform we hear about in today’s news addresses those convicted of non-violent crimes and serving disproportionately long sentences in prison. What’s left out of the conversation is the current problem facing local jails nationwide. Jails consists of mostly pretrial populations, that is people who have not been convicted of any crime and are presumed to be innocent. It also consists of mostly poor people: people who cannot afford to pay their bail. As a result, our jails, which see as many as 12 million admissions each year, are effectively holding poor people until they either enter a plea on their charges or go to trial.
So, what do we do to fix this? “Debtors Prisons” are illegal in the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States addressed that issue in Bearden v. Georgia. Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented them from existing and organizations such as Columbia Legal Services, right here in Seattle, are fighting to end the that practice (read more about that here). But back to the jails. The U.S. Department of Justice has penned an open letter to state judges across the country warning of the problem. Bail was originally designed to incentivize those who have been arrested to appear in court and, therefore, prevent them from being held in custody until that time. Today, ironically, it works to keep people in custody. If you can’t afford your bail, you stay in jail. However, those that can’t afford bail are generally those with minimal or no support system and have low paying and unstable jobs. They are the ones that lose their jobs while they await their trial, are released with fines and fees that they can’t afford to pay, and are eventually rebooked into jail soon after for a probation violation or for another petty offense, such as traffic tickets. The “vicious circle” remains unbroken. And the system remains broken.
Below are a few links to read more about the this topic and learn how you can get involved to help change it.