Congressman Ted Lieu introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2016, which prohibits the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release in federal criminal cases, and bars vital federal funding from going to states that impose money bail. If enacted, the legislation could potentially abolish money bail in the United States.
Co-sponsored by Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Brenda Lawrence and Ruben Gallego, the bill is most notable for its efforts to curb the use of money bail in the states, whose jurisdictions oversee the vast majority of inmates in America. Nearly 500,000 of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in America are in local jails and have not been convicted, and many of them are still in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
The bill prohibits states that impose money bail from receiving funds through federal Justice Assistance Grants (JAG). The JAG program provides state and local governments with critical funding for law enforcement, the courts, corrections, drug treatment, victim and witness initiatives, and a lot more–essentially, it helps pay for a significant portion of non-federal criminal justice activities. Last year the U.S. government made over $255.7 million available to non-federal jurisdictions under JAGs.
Some states and municipalities have begun to reform bail on their own, but the results have varied widely, from relatively minor tweaks like in Colorado to larger overhauls like in New Jersey [PDF]. In New York City, where jail conditions and the reform efforts that followed have garnered national attention, money bail has been an important subject of debate as the inability to afford bail is one of the primary drivers behind NYC’s jail population. Unable to reform bail laws without the help of the state, the city council was left to establish a $1.4 million bail fund to cover a limited class of pretrial inmates.
What makes the threat to withhold JAG funding powerful is that it would force a more uniform policy change, and likely inspire action in the places that need it the most.
California ($17 million) Texas ($11.8 million), Florida ($9.7 million), New York ($8.8 million) and Illinois ($5.9 million) were the top five states to receive money from JAG programs in 2015. The five local governments eligible to receive the largest awards that same year included New York City ($4.0 million), Chicago ($2.0 million), Philadelphia ($1.6 million), Houston ($1.6 million), and Los Angeles ($1.4 million). These are the same jurisdictions responsible for the lion’s share of America’s jail population.
Money bail is a hallmark of America’s unequal and blatantly discriminatory justice system–one in which freedom and justice are only available to those with the money to buy them. Like so many other aspects of our criminal justice system, there’s little if any research to back up the premise that money bail promotes public safety. What is for certain is that money bail makes an already arduous pretrial process even more risky for vulnerable populations, and leads to increased costs for taxpayers who have to pay for these jail stays.
Eliminating money bail as a condition for pretrial release could drastically reduce the number of people behind bars in America each day. While Rep. Lieu’s bill may be a longshot in a Congress that barely passes anything of value, it is one of the more powerful ideas on criminal justice reform to come out of Washington yet.