An Inconvenient Truth: The Bail System

What is bail?

Bail is the idea that someone accused of a crime pays the court an assigned amount of money which is then returned to the individual when they show up for their trial. The monetary value assigned is typically dependent on factors such as the nature of crime, and the accused financial standings. Bail is only offered to those who have been determined as being not an immediate threat if released back into society.

What is the problem with bail?

Bail disproportionally affects the poor population. Often times, bail is set too high for them to be able to afford it meaning they have to wait in jail until their trial. If they had more money, then they could be released. This has created a system where thousands of people are sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford the court assigned amount of money.

What are the consequences of this?

There are severe consequences no matter what choice someone who is accused makes. A majority of people simply plead guilty. They never see trial, but they choose to just put in this plea in order to be released and try to resume their normal lives. However, being seen guilty of a crime has negative consequences from being barred from voting, being unable to collect government aid, and being discriminated against in job searches. Yet, choosing to remain in jail until trial also has devastating consequences. It could take a long time for an individual to get to trial, and at that point they may have lost their jobs, and their family relations may become extremely strained.

So why do we have it?

The intent behind bail is that is gives people more incentive to show up for their court date. If they want their money back, they have to actually come on the right day. Due to all the factors involved in the bail system it is hard to argue whether or not it is effective. However, it is absolutely fair to say that it affects the poor the most, and it forces many people to fell like they have to plead guilty whether or not they actually committed the crime.

What are the alternatives?

There are many alternatives to this system. In fact, many other countries operate fundamentally different when it comes to this process. The most logical solution is to actually abolish the system in its entirety. A vast majority of those who are accused show up for the trial date, and do not get rearrested. The penalty would simply shift from losing a certain amount of cash to facing time in prison for skipping your court date.

What can you do?

There are many ways to help fight for bail reform. One is to contact your local legislators and tell them you support reform. Governmental policy has to change in order to guarantee that no one sits in prison because they simply do not have enough money. If you would like to get even more hands on, a grassroots initiative called NYC Mass Bailout has begun freeing women and children from jails such as Rikers that are only there because they don’t have the means to pay bail. Their website is and you have the opportunity to volunteer your time, or if possible donate money to help free those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves.


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