Animation shows how states are working to reform the nation's cash bail system

Posted at 11:10 AM, Jan 24, 2020

States are making major progress in reforming our nation’s cash bail system.

An estimated half-million Americans are in county jails right now, because they can’t afford to pay bail. Critics call the system discriminatory and say it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

When someone is accused of a crime, the judge sets a bail amount. It’s usually pre-determined, based on the alleged crime and meant to make sure the accused shows up to court in the future.

Those who can pay bail go free. Those who can't stay locked up.

Harvard law researchers found that up to three quarters of people being held on bail are accused of low-level offenses. Advocates say those people aren't dangerous, making jail overcrowding worse and costing taxpayers.

The prison policy initiative estimates taxpayers spend $13.6 billion each year to jail the accused before their trial.

Re-offending is another concern. Researchers say people held on bail for low-level crimes are 40 percent more likely to commit another low-level crime.

A major argument against cash bail is that it's designed to create inequality.

Harvard researchers found people of color are more likely to be held on bail and that people who can afford bail are more likely to be acquitted.

But not everyone supports reform. The most common argument against it is that letting accused criminals out of jail puts public safety at risk.

So, what does the future hold?

Several courts have ruled the system is unconstitutional and more states are considering bills to change or get rid of cash bail.