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Justice Reform

Many individuals sitting in jail waiting for trial are simply there because they cannot afford to post bail. It is an issue statewide that many struggle with, as the United States is the only country that uses a cash bail system. Currently, there are more than 470,000 pretrial detainees simply because they cannot afford to post bail, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. “The median bail amount for felonies is $10,000, which represents 8 months of income for a typical person detained”, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. These individuals have not been convicted of a crime but are still sitting in jail, which is unfair to those who cannot afford it. Those who can are comfortably at home awaiting their trial.

An article was published about how one attorney for Chittenden County State, Attorney Sarah George, has not been requesting cash bail in pretrial cases since January. She believes it is unjust that some people are in jail only because they cannot afford bail. She is making a difference for those who cannot post bail by not requiring it, allowing less people to sit in jail while they await trial. “And that’s, you know, losing their jobs and losing their housing and potentially losing their kids and disrupting the stability of relationships within their community”, says Sarah George. Currently, Vermont allows individuals to post bail with 10% of the bail amount paid but even then, many struggle to come up with these funds. The system spends more on keeping individuals on pretrial than the cash bail system brings in.

States are starting to recognize the difficulty that a cash bail system has on individuals and have reduced the use of cash bail. It tears families apart and makes a difficult time even more challenging. All individuals deserve the same right and fair access to not sit in jail while awaiting pretrial and the diminishing of using a cash bail system is one step in this positive direction. 

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Jail Overcrowding

A local news station in Bannock County, Idaho published an article on how one problem, COVID-19, has solved another problem, overcrowding, in their county jail. Sheriff Lorin Nielson recounts how Bannock County Jail is much too small for the number of people being kept there. The jail has seen overcrowding for six or seven years according to Nielson. This overpopulation problem has caused chaos in the jail, including riots, fights and major lack of space for inmates. Additionally, the funding to build a new, larger jail is not possible as it is not appealing to county taxpayers.

However, COVID-19 seems to be helping reduce the jail population.  The courts have been sending people home on what they call “their own recognizance”, which is a no-cash bail system. Instead of sitting in jail until they are able to post bail, they are being sent home without having to pay a bail fee. People being sent home are normally incarcerated for a DUI or misdemeanor violations, including technical ones. With these people being able to go home, there has been a major reduction in overcrowding and unnecessary individuals in jail. Usually, the jail reaches capacity at 333 people but last Wednesday reported there were only 250 people incarcerated. This has been the lowest number of people incarcerated in a while says Sheriff Nielson.

Also, “own recognizance” is helping contain the spread of COVID-19, as it mitigates officers, personnel and inmates being exposed to new people coming in who may have the disease. This keeps everyone safer and helps reduce contact between individuals. The new policy is helping reduce overcrowding and keep people safer in uncertain and hard times.

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Jail Overcrowding

In the beginning of February, the House of Delegates in West Virginia approved a bill to help alleviate the overcrowding of their regional jails. The bill (HB 2190) requires individuals charged with certain misdemeanors to be released on personal recognizance instead of bail. This leads to both humanitarian and practical advantages, according to House Judiciary Chairman, John Shott, R-Mercer. 


The House Judiciary Committee was informed last week by Deputy Corrections Commissioner, Mike Coleman, that counties paid regional jails $1.9 million in 2018 for defendants who could not post bail of $1,000 or less. In 2018, approximately 3,750 people were jailed on misdemeanor charges and spent 11 days in jail before they were capable of posting bond. With a total of 41,058 days billed to counties, this policy of bail for misdemeanor charges carried a hefty price of $48.25 a day.

Spending any amount of time in jail, even a few days, can drastically affect one’s ability to retain a job. It is not uncommon for those waiting in jail to lose their jobs due to missing days of work. Not being able to tend to children or support their family is also an unfortunate outcome of time spent in jail while waiting to pay bail.  Misdemeanors generally include petty theft, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, and traffic violations. Booking misdemeanor offenders takes time away from law enforcement officers that could spend their time on more serious offenses.


Releasing those accused of nonviolent crimes on personal recognizance is unquestionably valuable in solving the encroaching problem of overcrowding regional prisons. Those charged with misdemeanors involving violence, the threat of violence, crimes where the victim is a minor, the use of a deadly weapon, violations of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, or traffic offenses including negligent homicide or driving under the influence would still be required to pay cash bail. 


This legislation allowing the release of most individuals charged with non-violent crimes on personal recognizance bonds was advanced to the Senate, where it passed with a vote of 91 – 4. Reforms such as this bill, are necessary to mitigate the encroaching dilemma of jail overcrowding. In addition to allowing officers to be present for more serious offenses and giving offenders the accountability of appearing for their court date, the reform will grant counties the ability to allocate those costs to other budgets.
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Jail Overcrowding

Overcrowding in jails is one of the key problems faced in justice systems worldwide. In 2018, every single one of Hawaii’s jails were overcrowded. Minority groups have been deemed by experts to be unjustifiably impacted by overcrowding due to their financial status and as such are unable to afford bail. It is not uncommon for those who are not able to afford bail to be held for weeks, months, or even years at a time – before they have even been found guilty of a crime. This abundant amount of time away from their lives can be devastating. They can lose their jobs, housing and lose custody of their children.

Two bills, House Bill 175 and Senate Bill 192, have been implemented in the state capitol with the intent to reduce the financial burden faced by those detained by offering judges additional options for securing bail. These bills are one of many being proposed by states across the country to reform the detrimental bail system. If this legislation were approved, it would enable defendants to be released until their trial date on a bond that does not require the full, or any, portion of the bail to be paid. Only those who can demonstrate that they are unable to cover the cost of the cash bail without experiencing significant financial hardship are eligible for this accommodation.

With substantial reforms to a process as critical as bail, criticism is warranted. It has been disputed that this level of bail reform could risk public safety by releasing accused offenders too soon without the looming obligation of financial constraint. However, advocates for the bill have attested that it will establish an accountability to defendants by requiring that they would still be responsible for paying the bail amount if they were to fail to attend court, or if they committed additional crimes while on bail.  Hundreds of thousands of possibly innocent people languish in jails while their lives fall apart simply because they can’t afford bail, and reforms like this bill hope to make a substantial improvement.

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