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NEWS

Guest Post: In the United States, many are sitting in jail just because they are poor

editor - July 9, 2015 - Pre-trial detention

InmatesAccused individuals in the United States who cannot afford to bond out often face days, weeks, and even months of pre-trial detention.  Despite the strong presumption in the law toward setting a reasonable bail, accused individuals facing lengthy pre-trial detentions have increased across the United States in recent decades.  In 1996, jail populations were split down the middle, with 50% of inmates serving sentences and 50% in pre-trial detention awaiting trial.   By 2010, 61% of inmates in the United States were pre-trial detainees. Although crime rates have decreased nationally, jail populations have risen, in part because of the growing practice of counties incarcerating defendants prior to trial. National data shows that about two-thirds of the national jail population consists of people awaiting trial—more than 450,000 people.  And five out of six of those individuals are there either because they couldn’t afford bail or because a bail agent declined to post a bond. In McLennan County (Waco), Texas, where I practice law, statistics show that the pre-trial jail population comprises about 80% of the jail population.  Based on my experience in representing indigent defendants in the Central Texas area, many of the people detained pre-trial are held because they are unable to afford to bond out.  In other words, they sit in jail and wait because they are poor. As a recent article “Jailed for Being Broke” from Rolling Stone points out, “What people forget is that those who've merely been charged with crimes aren't officially guilty yet. And not-yet-guilty people aren't supposed to go to the hole, except under very narrowly defined sets of circumstances – for flight risks or for threats to the community. It's certainly not supposed to be a punishment for not having $500." And while it is difficult to get the public to care about bail and high pre-trial detention rates, the costs of this alone should catch the attention of taxpayers, especially in Texas. In Texas, the statewide average costs to county taxpayers are around $59.00 to incarcerate one individual in county jail, per day. Pre-trial detention not only imposes a financial burden on the community at large, it also has serious financial consequences for the accused person.  For many people, pre-trial detention eliminates the small safety net they had prior to their arrest. And due to pre-trial detention, people who were previously making it, can quickly find themselves in poverty. People who remain detained even just for a few days may lose their jobs, their homes, and their vehicles.  Families often lose the income of the individual being detained, which can result in a loss of health insurance, housing, and other issues. The detained individual may lose custody of their children--all of this before the person has ever been convicted of any actual offense. Freedom is costly, but those costs should not be prohibitive or single out a socioeconomic group.  Bail was put in place to protect communities and serve the justice system: not to fill our jails up with those who simply cannot afford to be free.

This is a guest post written by Michelle Simpson Tuegel and may not reflect the views of Fair Trials. Michelle Simpson Tuegel is a partner in the criminal trial law firm of Hunt & Tuegel PLLC in Waco, Texas.  She represents clients around Central Texas accused of capital murder, sexual assault, federal drug crimes, and other misdemeanor crimes. For regular updates follow Fair Trials on Twitter or sign-up to our monthly bulletin at the bottom of the page.

 

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