Guess How Much This Liberal City Charges the Poor to Stay Out of Jail?

America's criminal justice system imposes unnecessary hardship on the poor in an abundance of ways, but among the more life-ruining is a money-based bail system that keeps many poor people in jail, even when they haven't been convicted of a crime. 


A recent class-action lawsuit challenging San Francisco County's money-based bail system illustrates the plight of poor arrestees.

When Riana Buffin, 19, was charged with grand theft, her bail was set at $30,000, a prohibitively high sum given her $10.25-an-hour wage. Twenty-nine-year-old Crystal Patterson's bail was set at $150,000, but she didn't have the luxury of choosing jail over paying the city because she's her grandmother's sole caretaker, so she borrowed $1,500 from friends and family and now owes $15,000 to a bail bondsman. She makes $12.50 an hour as a home-care aid. Charges against both women were dropped, but that doesn't mean their lives weren't disrupted.

"The problem that we see in Ms. Patterson’s case and in so many of my clients’ cases is that people are faced with this coercive choice: Go into tremendous amounts of debt, plead guilty to a crime you may not have committed, or wait in jail and lose everything that’s dear and meaningful in your life,” San Francisco public defender Chesa Boudin told KQED

Eighty-five percent of inmates in the city's jail have not been convicted of a crime, the lawsuit notes. Nationally, around 60 percent of people in jail are awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, counties that don't operate on a money-based bail system release a large majority of arrestees pre-trial. Washington DC lets out 85 percent, notes CBS local. Because a poor person is unlikely to jet off to the Cayman Islands to avoid trial for a misdemeanor, chances are they'll show up to trial. 

On its website, Equal Justice Initiative lays out the impact on the individuals and society of a system they say privileges the wealthy.

Those who can afford their freedom pay for it, while others sit in jail pending trial simply due to their inability to pay. Such wealth-based detention has disastrous consequences: overcrowding of local jails, lost jobs, lost housing, shockingly poor sanitation and medical care, broken families, and drained local budgets. In many cases, an arrestee may be held longer in jail while awaiting trial than any sentence she or he would likely receive if convicted, causing even innocent people accused of crimes to plead guilty to offenses that they did not commit in order to cut short lengthy pretrial detention.

The group has mounted similar lawsuits in cities throughout the country.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.