The Corner

Law & the Courts

Americans Are Receptive to Bail Reform

Fence and guard tower at San Quentin State Prison in California (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

In the eyes of criminal-justice reform advocates, money bail in the United States is a prime candidate for change. The cost of secured-money bail is often prohibitively high for poor defendants, who wind up remaining in jail while awaiting trial. Thirty-four percent of defendants are kept in jail before their trials because they cannot afford bond, while the average daily population of incarcerated defendants awaiting trial is estimated to exceed 450,000.

If the detention of a defendant is a function of wealth rather than the risk he poses to public safety, then states and localities are spending money to detain people that they could plausibly set free before their court dates. Because it seems to impose egalitarian and fiscal costs alike, then, the bail system has made enemies across the political spectrum. And the push for bail reform has resulted in policy changes around the country.

Cities from Chicago to Atlanta to Nashville have abandoned their pre-set cash-bail policies, while states such as Connecticut and Illinois have reformed their bail systems. This week, New Jersey’s sweeping bail-reform law withstood a challenge in federal court, preserving one of the more ambitious entries in the reform effort (and dealing a blow to the bail-bond industry). Meanwhile, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that he will push for bail reform, and the Ohio state legislature is mulling tweaks to its own bail system.

Now a new poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners and reviewed by both the Charles Koch Institute and Pretrial Justice Institute, suggests the bail-reform push won’t end anytime soon. First reported here, the poll reveals broadly receptive attitudes among Americans to bail reform. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed favor ending the practice of jailing people who cannot afford bail before trial “except in extreme cases,” while 45 percent of those surveyed favor the elimination of money bail entirely. As for general principles, 70 percent of those polled said public safety should be the primary concern when deciding whom to detain before trial, while 78 percent said they believe the criminal-justice system favors the wealthy. Just 6 percent feel there is “no need for change” to the U.S. criminal-justice systems.

Bail reform is no silver bullet, and pairing it with alternatives to incarceration that preserve public safety (such as electronic monitoring) might be an intelligent move. But with laws such as New Jersey’s showing success, a growing number of cities and states considering their own initiatives, and, as this poll demonstrates, a growing appetite for fresh thinking among Americans, the bail-reform push seems poised to gain momentum.

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