By now you have almost certainly seen many election ads scaring people about any candidate who advocates bail reform. They are accused of wanting to put killers and rapists on the streets to commit more crime. Paired with sometimes misleading crime statistics, these ads have successfully scared many voters so much that crime is a top voting issue this fall. It’s an old political campaign tactic and it obscures the truth about bail reform.
How would you feel if you were arrested? You might be terrified. You might be angry. You might start sliding into despair.
Most people feel a combination of these emotions. Many more people are entirely innocent than you may think. Other times, the person has done something illegal but is taken aback by the harshness of the charges they’re facing.
Whatever the situation, every defendant in America has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Unfortunately, that principle doesn’t seem to apply when people are detained in jail before trial.
With the current cash bail system in use in most U.S. jurisdictions, defendants are often held in jail simply because they can’t afford the high bail assigned to them. They lose their jobs, often their housing, and sometimes custody of their kids because they can’t get out of jail.
Some jurisdictions are starting to reform the system to give more people a greater presumption of innocence. Instead of high cash bail, these jurisdictions are using certain criteria to determine whether the person is dangerous or a flight risk. In New York, no bail can be required for many low-level offenses.
This has been somewhat controversial. Some people campaigning for office claim that reform of the current system is anti-police. They stoke fear that dangerous people will be let back out on the streets to commit further crimes. Or, they fear that people who aren’t held hostage by their bail might not show up for their court dates.
Studies have shown, however, that those fears are generally unfounded. The vast majority of people let out after charging aren’t rearrested for new crimes. The vast majority do show up for court.
The ACLU-NJ sets out to tell the truth about bail reform
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey wanted to highlight the success stories in that state, which passed bail reform in the mid-2010s.
The group encountered Tyler Hubbard, who was charged with second degree aggravated assault after an argument with his stepdad.
Before New Jersey’s bail reform, Tyler’s bail would probably have been set at $100,000 or more. Most people can’t come up with that kind of money, or even a 10% bond. Tyler certainly couldn’t have afforded it.
Instead, he was let out of jail and could continue working. He wasn’t held in jail for months or even years before his trial. He didn’t despair and plead guilty just to put an end to it.
There are thousands of people like Tyler, but their success stories don’t make the news. They may not want to jeopardize their cases by talking to the press. They may want to put their criminal charge behind them.
It’s crucial to keep them in mind as we evaluate whether bail reform is working.