The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that it is illegal for courts to require excessive bail as a term for the release of a defendant.
Though the language stops short of defining what is considered “excessive,” it is clear that our Founding Fathers did not want people who were assumed innocent to be in jail as they await trial. They would be disappointed if they saw the broken system of cash bail today.
According to a report by the Department of Justice in 2014, there are around 450,000 people detained in jail who are simply awaiting trial. Staggeringly, this accounts for two-thirds of the entire national jail population.
Of these 450,000, five out of six of them were offered bail but did not have the financial means to post it, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Additionally, in 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization improving justice and safety in the United States, reported that “three out of five people in jail are legally presumed innocent, awaiting trial or resolution of their cases through plea negotiation, and simply too poor to post even low bail.”
The practice of incarcerating people not yet convicted of a crime is also happening right here in Broome County. Of all of the inmates currently housed in the Broome County Jail, 75 percent of them have yet to be convicted of a crime.
In 2016, there was a total of 505 inmates at the Broome County Jail — 383 of them were not convicted. These people have not been found guilty of breaking the law; they are imprisoned because they cannot afford the unreasonably high bail required for their release.
This false imprisonment of the people of the city of Binghamton and surrounding areas reflects the broken cash bail system currently implemented in our nation, which allows for the detention of poor citizens who have merely been accused of a crime. Many of the people who have been locked up are not a danger to society, nor are they considered a flight risk — if that were the case, they never would have been offered bail in the first place.
Instead, the majority of people incarcerated in the Broome County Jail simply cannot afford the high rate of bail. In 2015, New York state reported an average poverty rate of 15.9 percent but the specific rate of poverty in Broome County was 18 percent — a full 2 percent more than the state average.
If the poverty rate of this county is significantly higher than that of New York state, it is no surprise that the people in Broome County do not have the financial means to secure their release — but being impoverished should not be equated with automatic incarceration.
There are other options for bail in this country.
Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union is leading a movement in California to amend the bail policy. They want the state’s judges to take a case-by-case approach, looking specifically into each situation to address the “racial and economic disparities in the justice system.” They cite Kentucky as an example of a state with a successful system of release — 70 percent of people who are awaiting trial are released, and 90 percent of releases return for all of their court appearances.
Cook County, Illinois, has also reformed the system — judges are now required to consider if the “defendant has the present ability to pay the amount necessary” when determining the rate of bail required.
A panel of speakers organized by SOC 280B: Activism, Feminism and Social Justice will be discussing this issue on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. in Room 102 of the University Union. Attending this event can be an effective first step in using your voice as a BU student to help combat this issue.
In the United States, we are innocent until proven guilty — it’s time to create a bail system that reflects it.
Emily Houston is a junior double-majoring in English and political science.