For many of the men and women charged with serious crimes, punishment starts long before the trial.
Under the current bail system in most states, charged defendants are given the opportunity to pay an amount of money, commensurate with the severity of the crime and the risk of flight, to ensure that they will show up for their court date. If the amount is paid, the defendant is released on his or her own reconnaissance. If the defendant is unable to pay, they have the opportunity to acquire bail bonds, paying a third party a non-refundable amount (usually around 10 percent of the total bail amount) for release, or to remain incarcerated until the time of their trial.
Even if the defendant is exonerated, the time spent behind bars and the money lost during the bail process cannot be recovered, and the collateral damages to pretrial incarceration can have a permanent impact on employment, housing, and family life.
A short animated film produced by the Vera Institute of Justice gives a general overview of the issues surrounding current bail practices. “While in jail, you certainly lose your freedom,” the film says, “but you may also lose your job, your home, and your ability to support your family—not to mention your ability to pay the fines and fees that got you into jail in the first place.”
The cost of pretrial incarceration and/or bond payment affects more than just the person awaiting their court appearance, though. It also affects their families and their communities. A 2013 study of New Jersey jails found that 40 percent of the total jail population was there solely because they were unable to meet the terms of their bail. These are men and women who otherwise could be earning a salary, contributing to a job, and supporting their families.
Working for sentencing reform is a vital part of Prison Fellowship’s efforts to make sure that punishments match the crimes committed, that all who are in the justice system are treated fairly and equitably, and that rehabilitation is a primary focus of incarceration. Creating a bail system that isn’t unduly and inequitably burdensome on those being sentenced is just one element of an effort to build a justice system that seeks the rehabilitation and the restoration of prisoners to their communities. To find out more about Prison Fellowship’s work to reform criminal justice, and how you can be a part of those efforts, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/advocacy.