By Sandy K. Johnson

Bail is big business in the U.S. More than 10 million Americans wind up in jail each year, and their get-out-of-jail card is usually cash bail.

Bail bond companies turn a huge profit, securing $14 billion in bail bonds each year. The U.S. is one of only two countries that have a for-profit cash bail system. (The other is the Philippines.)

In 1990, bail was set in 37% of felony cases; by 2009, bail was required in 61% of felony cases. The average bail in a felony case is $10,000, an eye-popping amount that disproportionately impacts people of color and those with low incomes, according to Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Nobody anticipates having to pay bail,” she said.

On any given day, Rahman said, two-thirds of people in jail can’t meet bail. That overloads an already overcrowded corrections system with many people who aren’t a threat to society. As a public defender for six years, Rahman said she often wondered what the judge was thinking when he or she would seemingly arbitrarily set bail at $500 or $5,000.

Bail reform in jurisdictions like New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., created a presumption of release with no negative impact on public safety, Rahman said.

  • Washington, D.C., ended bail in 1992. Today, nine of 10 people arrested are released without bail and 88% of them appear in court at the appointed date.
  • New Jersey voters approved a new pretrial system three years ago that does not require money bail. Eight of 10 people are released before their court dates and the appearance rate is 90%.
  • In 1992, New York City’s jail population was 22,000; today it’s 7,000. Rahman credited bail reforms where judges rely on pretrial release and supervision and must consider a person’s ability to pay if they do require bail.

Rahman also addressed the use of risk assessment instruments in determining whether an arrested person is a flight risk or a threat to public safety. She has “significant concerns about baking in bias and not allowing individualized consideration.” She also questioned the use of electronic monitoring devices or mandatory drug testing in jurisdictions where the accused are required to pay for them.