Criminal Justice

Impact of pretrial detention falls more heavily on minorities and low-income people, new report says

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More than 60% of defendants are detained before trial because they can’t afford to post bail, according to a study finding that the impact falls most heavily on minorities and low-income people.

Nationally, the average bail amount for felonies is $10,000, according to the report released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The report is titled The Civil Rights Implications of Cash Bail.

“With the imposition of financial conditions increasing along with bail amounts,” the report said, “the number of defendants who are detained in jail pretrial has grown, but the number of those sentenced have decreased.”

A total of 631,000 people are held in jails every day, and 74% are awaiting trial, the report said.

Research suggests that people of color may be subjected to higher bail amounts and are more likely to be perceived as dangerous during bail hearings, according to the report.

One study, for example, found that when monetary bail was set for Black defendants, it was in significantly greater amounts than for white defendants.

Research also shows that Black and Hispanic defendants have higher rates of pretrial detention than white defendants and are more likely to have financial conditions imposed.

Pretrial detention has collateral consequences, such as job losses, housing insecurity, family problems and an increased likelihood of engaging in future criminal conduct, the report noted. Those consequences have led to increasing concerns, especially given the lack of empirical research showing that pretrial detention increases public safety.

Many defendants post bail by relying on bail bond companies, for-profit businesses that charge a nonrefundable fee, usually set at 10% to 20% of the bail amount. Many defendants sign bail bond contracts that obligate them to pay loan installments and fees after their cases are resolved.

Bail concerns have led to reforms in at least 10 states and 40 counties. Some are revising or have already revised pretrial law and policy, while others are changing state constitutions, the report said.

The report followed a public hearing in which the commission heard from government officials, academics, law enforcement professionals, advocates and impacted people.

Norma V. Cantú, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, commented on the findings in a press release.

“More than half a million unconvicted people sit in jails across the nation awaiting trial,” Cantú said. “Presumption of innocence is the bedrock of our criminal justice system, with liberty the rule and pretrial detention intended to be a ‘carefully limited exception.’ Under the current bail system, it has become the norm.”

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