Does money bail actually keep us safe or is the entire system flawed?

Ending money bail has emerged as an urgent rallying cry in many cities across the U.S.; organizers in Durham, North Carolina have pushed this issue to the forefront of municipal and state political conversations. Right now, people who have not been convicted of a crime are incarcerated because they cannot afford to make bail.

The two main ways someone accused of a crime can be released from jail before their trial are cash bail and bond. After police arrest someone, the accused sits in jail until a hearing, where a judge determines under what circumstances they may be released, if they are deemed eligible for release at all. Cash bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail pretrial. Bond is a sum posted by a bail company on behalf of the accused. Bail serves as a way to ensure a person returns to court under the agreements, but the bail process is confusing by design.

People with access to money have the ability to afford their cash bail to gain release, but most rely on the predatory system of bail bonds professionals. Those who are found innocent are still obligated to repay their bond, often leaving people in a mountain of debt. Some NC lawmakers have directly benefitted from the bonds system as bail bonds professionals pushing for legislation to benefit their industry. N.C. lawmakers received $350,000 in campaign cash between 2002 and 2016 from bail bonds companies and related donors.

The process is expensive for taxpayers as well. It costs on average $82 a night to house those awaiting trial in jail, more than what it would cost to provide supportive resources to help someone pretrial. Again, jails are different from prisons, in that most people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime. In this country, the legal precedence is innocent until proven guilty.

The dominant narrative for supporting the cash bail system is that it keeps people safer. Those with access to money are able to get out of jail, while low-income people are not able to get out of jail as easily, regardless of the level of their charges. A system that prioritizes money does not increase public safety because the narrative that it creates safety is based on a false dichotomy of ‘good’ people versus ‘bad’ people. The money bail system reinforces this narrative instead of preventing an increase in crime and arrest to actually keep communities safer.