On June 4, Athens-Clarke County moved to eliminate cash bail for low-level offenses after the mayor and commission unanimously voted to amend local ordinance Sec. 3-5-36. Under the new law, no one who commits a low-level offense will be arrested unless they are dangerous, do not identify themselves when issued a citation, do not sign a petition or fail to show up for their necessary legal proceedings.
The decision will improve the criminal justice system in Athens and ensure that disadvantaged groups are treated more fairly.
Those defending cash bail may point out that releasing those accused of a crime could simply enable them to commit another crime. In some ways, this argument makes sense. Releasing arrestees before their trial does increase pretrial crime and leads to more failures to appear in court, according to a study from the American Economic Review. However, reduced crime after the judge’s ruling from pretrial release means in no change to the future crime rate.
The cash bail system hurts lower-income individuals for obvious reasons. With fewer financial resources to post bail, the impoverished are more likely to spend time in jail, which the wealthy can avoid. In addition, a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the cash bail system is unfair to African-Americans, who are often more harshly judged and given longer sentences than white people.
This discrimination against the poor and African-Americans can have large impacts. In New York City in 2017 alone, 33,000 people spent time in jail without having been convicted of a crime because they could not post bail. These detainees spent 119,030 days in jail that they could have been avoided had they been wealthier.
Besides unjustly keeping disadvantaged people in jail, cash bail also impairs detainees’ ability to defend themselves in court. According to a study published by the American Economic Review, securing bail decreases the likelihood of conviction, mainly due to a lower chance of guilty pleas. This may be due to pretrial release strengthening defendants’ ability to prepare their cases and seek legal help. Thus, the cash bail system leads to unfair treatment and prosecution of those unable to pay for their release.
Beyond the human aspect, cash bail is draining on communities’ resources and the economy. The cost of incarcerating those unable to post bail in New York City was $100 million in 2017, and the Comptroller’s Office estimated that detainees lose $28 million in wages annually through lost jobs, wages and time with their families, reducing the economic mobility of them and their families. While NYC is much larger than Athens, it shows bail bonds help disproportionately incarcerate poor communities of color, and removing bail bonds benefits them.
Cash bail is supposed to apply equally to all groups, regardless of economic or racial background. As a society, we often fall short of that ideal. By eliminating cash bail, however, Athens has taken an important step toward creating a more just and fair legal system.