Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are working together on a new criminal justice effort aimed at reducing the size of jails.
Harris and Paul are reintroducing the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, a bipartisan effort aimed at encouraging states to reform or replace the current bail system.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Paul and Harris discuss the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old New Yorker who spent three years in jail for stealing a backpack because his family could not afford the $3,000 bail. The charges were later dropped, and a “haunted” Browder committed suicide in 2015.
“Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally,” the op-ed reads. “Yet, that doesn’t happen for many of the 450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail.”
The Senators point out that an accused’s jail time is often determined by their economic status or available connections.
“Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life.”
The Senators call the current bail system “discriminatory and wasteful,” and argue that criminal justice groups must work to reform this system as well.
“Excessive bail disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color,” the op-ed continues. “The Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia in 1983 that the Constitution prohibits ‘punishing a person for his poverty,’ but that’s exactly what this system does. Nine out of 10 defendants who are detained cannot afford to post bail, which can exceed $20,000 even for minor crimes like stealing $105 in clothing.”
“Meanwhile, black and Latino defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with similarly situated white defendants. In fact, black and Latino men respectively pay 35 percent and 19 percent higher bail than white men.”
Harris and Paul also point out that the current system is costing taxpayers greatly.
“This isn’t just unjust. It also wastes taxpayer dollars. People awaiting trial account for 95 percent of the growth in the jail population from 2000 to 2014, and it costs roughly $38 million every day to imprison these largely nonviolent defendants. That adds up to $14 billion a year.”
“Bail is supposed to ensure that the accused appear at trial and don’t commit other offenses in the meantime,” the senators continued. “But research has shown that low-risk defendants who are detained more than 24 hours and then released are actually less likely to show up in court than those who are detained less than a day.”
Paul and Harris argue that the current bail system fails to make law abiding citizens any safer, referring to a study of two large jurisdictions where nearly half of the “high risk” were because they could afford the cost of bail.
The Senators add that this issue should not be partisan, and include examples of a few states that have started successful reform efforts.
“Kentucky and New Jersey, for instance, have shifted from bail toward personalized risk assessments that analyze factors such as criminal history and substance abuse,” the senators state. “These are better indicators of whether a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to the public and ought to be held without bail.”
“Colorado and West Virginia have improved pretrial services and supervision, such as using telephone reminders so fewer defendants miss court dates and end up detained.”
The Republican and Democratic Senators both agree that the reforms should occur at the state level and reference the harm that the federal government has caused in criminal justice reform.
“Instead of the federal government mandating a one-size-fits-all approach, this bill provides Department of Justice grants directly to the states so each can devise and carry out the most effective policies, tailored for its unique needs.”
“Enabling states to better institute such reforms also honors one of our nation’s core documents, the Bill of Rights. In drafting the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive bail, the founders sought to protect people from unchecked government power in the criminal justice system.”
The Senators’ bill aims to allow states to work on reforms themselves while holding each individual state accountable. The bill also seeks to improve data collection.
“Enabling states to better institute such reforms also honors one of our nation’s core documents, the Bill of Rights,” Harris and Paul emphasize. “In drafting the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive bail, the founders sought to protect people from unchecked government power in the criminal justice system.”
“Any state receiving support must report on its progress and make sure that reforms like risk assessments are not discriminatory through analyses of trends and data. This will show that it’s possible to demand transformation, transparency and fairness.”
Harris and Paul state that bail reform has the potential to save American taxpayers “roughly $78 billion a year.”