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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

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Last year, US Attorney General Eric Holder decried the proportion of jail inmates held pretrial on bonds beyond their means: "The reality is that it doesn't have to be this way.... Almost all of these individuals could be released and supervised in their communities ... without endangering their fellow citizens or fleeing from justice."

Mr. Holder and his colleagues have been proponents of "pretrial services programs." The appeal of the programs is that they can address both public safety and overdetention by moving away from the bail-only system.

Cliff Keenan, who runs the pretrial services program in Washington, D.C., states the position most succinctly: "Money should not control. Dangerous people get out of jail, and people who are not dangerous, but don't have the money, stay in jail."

Most large cities now have a pretrial services agency that interviews and screens defendants shortly after arrest, red-flagging anyone who poses a risk of fleeing or reoffending. But some pretrial services programs barely make a dent in pretrial detention, some because of ineffectiveness, others because of opposition by bail bondsmen coupled with reluctance of justice officials sensitive to looking weak on crime.

Typically, those who pose low or little risk are released on their own recognizance. Defendants who pose the most risk are held without bail or – often – given a very high bond, which judges hope defendants won't be able to pay.

Those arraigned who pose a moderate risk are released but monitored by pretrial services staff, through ankle bracelets, regular check-ins, or drug screens. A court-reminder program also calls defendants as their court dates approach, a method shown to reduce no-shows.

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