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In America, Innocent Until Proven Guilty? Not For Most People Who Are Stuck in Jail

The most common reason people are in jail is because they can't afford the fee.

Photo Credit: Milagli


Most people in jail in the U.S. have not been convicted of any crime. That is unless poverty can be considered an automatic-lockup offense.

Tour a jail in any county in the nation and chances are six of every 10 inmates are people legally presumed innocent and still awaiting trial. The majority of those inmates are stuck behind bars not based on their presumed risk to the outside community or likelihood to appear in court, but solely because they were unable to afford their bail bond.  

And the people who can’t afford to pay are not typically the high-stakes defendants with bail bonds set to the tune of $50,000 plus. Far more often the people with low-stakes bonds, between $50 and $1,000, are the ones that sit in jail, unable to work, accumulating bills and costing the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Why is this the case? A for-profit, unregulated, centuries-old $14 billion bail bonds industry thrives in this country. The people in the business of dishing out bail bonds for desperate defendants are looking to turn a serious profit from the high-stakes bonds, in part via nonrefundable fees charged to the defendents.

The current system works in such a way that the folks with money can buy their freedom, and the folks without money cannot. On top of that, the highest level alleged criminals are the ones getting bailed out by profiteering bail bonds companies, while nonviolent, low-risk petty crime defendents end up filling America’s already-overcrowded jails, at times for months—even years—on end before they’re even been allowed their constitutional right to a fair trial.

New York's WNYC Radio published a story titled "No Bail Money Keeps Poor People Behind Bars" in which they cite the case of Raul Hernandez who was arrested Aug. 2 for misdemeanor drug possession after a cop accused him of "dropping an empty plastic bag containing heroine residue." 

While Hernandez told WNYC he has multiple convictions on his record, mainly for drugs and larceny, he said that this time he was innocent, so he turned down a deal that would put him in jail for 7 days if he plead guilty.  When Hernandez rejected the plea agreement, a judge decided to set his bail at $500 pending trial.

“I couldn’t post it,” Hernandez told WNYC. “I don’t have nobody.”

So he was held in Rikers Island, New York City's primary jail complex, for nine days—more time than he would have served if he’d accepted the plea deal.

"On his next court date, he came back expecting to argue his case — only the cop who allegedly witnessed the incident was off that day and unavailable to testify," the article notes. "So Hernandez had a choice: maintain his innocence and stay in jail, or plead guilty, get credit for the time he already served and go home. He pleaded guilty to get out of jail."

Fifty-three percent of all felony defendants in the U.S. remain in jail the entire time leading up to their trials due to lack of funds for even seemingly small financial bonds, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute a national nonprofit organization focused on pretrial research and education. The most common reason someone is held in jail pretrial is money—the inability to pay their monetary bail bond, according to PJI.

That bond could be for $100, or $50,000, and regardless of their alleged crime, if the person can’t pay, they will remain in jail. On average, this means a person will be stuck in jail for three or four months, but in some cases pretrial jail time can last more than a year.