In Connecticut, the cost of holding defendants on low-level bail — which usually means they are low risk — is approximately $150 million a year.
This cost, borne by taxpayers, could be cut by up to 94 percent without reducing public safety if the state changed the way it dealt with low risk defendants.
Right now, if a person cannot afford to “make bail” — in other words, pay 10 percent of their bond to a bail bondsmen — they end up stuck in jail.
Innocent or not, they are jailed by poverty. In most cases their charges are nonviolent, and include such offenses as drug possession, petty theft, failure to appear, and violation of probation.
The cash-bail system ends up costing taxpayers because we have to pay to keep poor residents in jail, and it doesn’t make us safer because high-risk defendants can be released if they have enough money to make bail.
By switching to a no-cash bail system, and by using a better risk-assessment tool, we can keep the public safer and save money.
If a defendant has been determined to be a risk to the public, they should stay in jail. Below that, alternatives to jail include regular check-ins, monitoring, GPS tracking anklets, and limiting detention to over-nights.
People held in jail before their trials are dislocated from the aspects of their life that deter criminality. These defendants face losing their jobs, apartments, and are also separated from their families and community.
Instead, they are placed in an environment where crime is the norm and gangs are the available social networks. As evidenced by the high rates of recidivism, our prison system is adept at producing repeat offenders. Jail time, particularly of the innocent, corrodes the human spirit and should be avoided if possible.
It’s difficult to measure, but it’s well known that defendants who are stuck in jail waiting for their court dates will sometimes plead guilty to a crime, regardless of their actual culpability, in order to secure a release. The reason this happens is because the time between arrest and trial may be longer than the sentence they would receive if found guilty. This is particularly problematic when the charge a person faces does not carry a prison sentence, but he is still stuck in jail waiting for his court date.
But pleading guilty unnecessarily comes with a cost — they are branded with a criminal record. This limits their employment opportunities, reducing their ability to support a family and contribute to society. Worse, without legitimate employment opportunities, what may have been a one-time error in judgment or the foolishness of youth can become a career in crime, reducing public safety.
The harm caused by jailing people just because they are poor begins with the individual and ripples outward into the community: Families are broken, productivity is reduced, and crime and poverty become generational.
There are, of course, situations when it is necessary to keep a person in jail. There are individuals who may present a clear and imminent threat to public safety that cannot be managed with pre-trial services. However, bail does even less than a GPS tracking anklet to mitigate such a threat. In cases where pre-trial services fall short, bail fails as well.
Putting low-risk defendants in jail before their trials is not the best use of tax dollars. As the state faces month over month increases in its projected budget deficit, finding cost savings without reducing services should be a priority.
The $150 million dollars we currently spend keeping low risk defendants in jail could be used elsewhere — whether to stop dangerous criminals, prevent hospital cuts, or by leaving the money in taxpayers’ pockets to grow the economy.
Saving money is the most visible benefit of changing our bail system, but this alone doesn’t capture the full economic benefit of keeping people out of jail when they are not a risk to society.
Thurston Powers is a policy associate at the Yankee Institute, Connecticut’s free-market think tank. He is participating in a round table discussion about bail reform Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.