U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) recently introduced legislation that would ban cash bail for non-violent and low-level crime suspects. “At any given time, there are roughly 500,000 people sitting in local jails awaiting their day in court,” Davis said at a news conference Jan. 18. “These are people who have been charged with a crime but not convicted. They are deemed innocent in the eyes of the law.
“Some of these have committed violent offenses and need to be constrained to protect; in some instances, for themselves but certainly for the protection and safety of others.”
Davis cited a study sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures that said 75 percent of those detained are for non-violent offenses such as traffic violations, property crimes, simple drug possession, or other some minor offense and many will be found innocent, have their charges dropped, or do community service and receive probation.
“Many of the people waiting in jail are forced to wait simply because they cannot afford to post bail,” he said. New Jersey is the only state that has eliminated cash bail completely. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has said that eliminating cash bail is a priority this year. In the District of Columbia, a defendant is not required to post bail.
Maryland state legislators, particularly those who are African American, are working to end the practice in their state. Davis’s bill is “The Bail Fairness Act of 2018.” The bill requires states to release persons charged with a non-violent misdemeanor on non-monetary conditions only prior to court adjudication. The bill would also require states to dismiss any criminal charges filed against an offender if he or she qualifies for and satisfactorily completes a state-authorized mental health diversion program, drug/alcohol abuse diversion program, community service diversion program, and any other program that deals with the issue of the offender’s age.
The Davis bill has a penalty for states that fail to comply with his legislation. Those states will have a 20 percent reduction of JAG (Justice Assistance Grants) funds.
Joining Davis at the news conference were Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Dwight Evans (D-Pa.). Lee, who represents much of Houston’s Black community, is an original co-sponsor of Davis’ bill and said it is needed.
“Harris County is the poster child for what is wrong with the bail system,” Lee said. “We are the fifth largest county in the country and there are about 10,000 people in the Harris County jail. Simply put, if you have no money, you are in jail.”
Lee said the cash bail system in the Houston area has caused families to break up and people to lose jobs. She urged the Judiciary Committee to hold a swift hearing on the The Bail Fairness Act of 2018 and said that it should be brought to the House floor and get a U.S. Senate sponsor.
Evans, who represents many Black Philadelphians, said the problem of cash bail has gotten ridiculous in some instances. “I have heard about a woman who is in jail because she didn’t have $100 for bail,” he said. “We should have addressed this a long time ago. This problem is fixable.”
Dr. Willie Wilson is a passionate opponent of cash bail and is a noted Chicago entrepreneur and social justice advocate. Wilson, who attended the news conference, said that cash bail is unfair to taxpayers. “It costs $168 a day to house an inmate in the Cook County Jail,” he said. “That money could be used elsewhere. People who have the lightest offenses should not have to spend time in jail.”
Davis said even some of his conservative colleagues are intrigued by the idea of eliminating cash bail. “Those who are not liberal rebuff at taking care of someone else at the public’s expense,” he said. “They understand that eliminating cash bail will reduce costs.”
To the defenders of the cash bail system, who argue that it ensures that defendants show up for court dates, Davis said that’s simply not true. “Studies have shown that in non-cash bail cities and states, 96 percent do show up to court obligations,” he said. “Besides, how can anyone flee when they have no money to travel?”