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Bail is obstructing justice in Massachusetts

By Hannah Marion

Section: Opinions

April 26, 2015

From the time of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on June 26, 2013 until his conviction on first-degree murder charges this month, he was held in jail without the option of bail. Such measures are necessary for people who pose a risk to the safety of others in the community, yet many people accused of victimless crimes are being kept in jails across Massachusetts simply because they cannot afford bail, despite the fact that they do not pose a risk to community safety. These practices are abhorrent and should be eliminated.

Currently there are 731,200 people held in American jails. Three out of five of those inmates have not been convicted of a crime. Rather, these inmates have been accused of crimes and are awaiting trial in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail. A report from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that jails are “massive warehouses primarily for those too poor to post even low bail.”

Our Constitution protects against unlawful imprisonment, so it cannot be proper to hold people in jail who haven’t committed a crime. Poverty is not a crime. It makes sense to detain people who pose a flight risk or are likely to commit more crimes, but it simply does not make sense to hold people who cannot pay.

The size of bail has no correlation to preventing flight or future crimes. This cash bail system fails to serve its purpose and keep our communities safe because high-risk people with money can pay for their release into society. According to the American Bar Association, the cost to hold these people is $9 billion a year. Data from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security similarly indicates that keeping a single person in jail in Massachusetts costs the state $145.31 per day.

This is clearly a broken system. Not only does it fail to provide justice to those with few financial resources, but it costs our taxpayers a lot of money each year. This money could be saved or spent on programs and services that reduce the incarcerated population instead of fuel its growth.

Some people may argue that potential criminals should not be released into society. However, imprisoning these people only serves to create a greater danger to our public safety. A recent study of 750,000 pretrial cases found that inmates who were detained more than 48 hours were four times more likely to commit another crime within a two-year time frame, regardless of their criminal history, risk and age. Why would we put people in jail if they have not been convicted of a crime when this only makes them more likely to commit a crime?

Although Massachusetts has always promoted a progressive image, states in the South have implemented pretrial services instead of incarcerating people and are eliminating cash bail altogether. What’s more is that these reforms work. According to the American Bar Association, in Washington, D.C., 80 percent of people accused of crimes are released pretrial. During their release, 97 percent of people are not charged with an additional felony and 91 percent are not charged with a new misdemeanor.

An act reforming pretrial process is the solution to these problems in Massachusetts’ criminal justice system. This legislation would eliminate the cash bail that we know to be discriminatory and ineffective and instead would use a department of pretrial services to ensure that people would receive services to help them with the behavior that led to their arrest. This bill ensures true justice to those accused of crimes no matter their financial status and increases our community safety.

If you believe that poverty is not a crime, reach out to your legislators and express your support for an act reforming pretrial process.

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