Payday lenders used to be considered among the worst of today’s predators, disproportionately preying on Blacks and the poor in the U.S. But in recent years, they’ve been replaced by an even more sinister, long-entrenched system — America’s bail bond industry.
And because it operates with the support of the country’s judicial system, the multibillion-dollar industry, according to reports released by the American Civil Liberties Union, facilitates a system in which those who cannot afford bail must remain in jail until their trial. For the poor, neither of the two choices before them are encouraging: they must either borrow money that they can ill-afford to repay or remain locked up.
However, remaining in jail rarely leads to a happy ending as the bulk of current research indicates that those who remain incarcerated are less likely to win their court cases. Meanwhile, those who borrow from bondsmen to buy their freedom find themselves languishing in debt for months — even years — before their able to pay their debt.
It is this for-profit system to which we object. Some jurisdictions, including the District and New Jersey, decided to do the right thing and revised their policies in order to eliminate their reliance on bail. But, in other parts of the country, the adherence to the cash bail practice has increased dramatically, particularly over the past two decades.
And rather than stay locked up for an indeterminate amount of time, those unable to post bond, the poor, are more likely to plead guilty to offenses that they did not commit, simply so they can get back to their families and, if they’re employed, back to their jobs.
Judges admit that the system is flawed but also consider it to be a crucial tool as it tends to be the most reliable assurance that defendants will show up for their day in court. But it still does not allow for a level field for everyone charged with a crime. It still tends to have a negative and punitive impact on low-income defendants.
Being poor should not make our citizens criminals. But in far too many courtrooms, that’s exactly the result.