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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

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Bail is the money needed to obtain release pretrial, as determined by a judge. The legal purpose for bail is to assure that a defendant will return to court.

Of those detained in jails in the United States, three-quarters face nonviolent charges, for drug, property, or petty offenses, says Ms. Baradaran, who chairs the American Bar Association's Pretrial Release Task Force. She and Rutgers Business School economist Frank McIntyre culled 15 years of felony data from the largest counties in the US. They found that only 1 to 2 percent of felons are rearrested for a violent crime before trial.

They concluded that there would be no increase in crime if courts released 25 percent more people without one bit of additional supervision, Baradaran says, noting that an even larger number could be released under expanded pretrial programs.

Mr. Austin, of the JFA Institute, a criminal-justice research organization in Washington, D.C., also questions the use of costly jail beds to hold large numbers of pretrial defendants because, in the 1980s, his research found that court supervision could improve outcomes of pretrial release programs.

The use of bonds has increased sharply in recent decades. Judges set money bonds in 53 percent of felony cases in 1990. By 2006, that figure had risen to 70 percent. The proportion of jailed pretrial defendants also rose during that time, presumably because release became unaffordable for many.

Bail-only release is not the only way

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