Criminal Justice SystemHouston
Why Bail is Broken in Texas
Thousands of people sit in Texas jails at any given time without being convicted of any crime. Some defendants have the pleasure of affording bail and spending time with their families while awaiting trial or a plea deal.
Many others must suffer in a cell throughout their court proceedings, even if they will inevitably be proven innocent. Anytime a person accused of a misdemeanor like DWI sits in jail, this is a sign that our broken bail system needs fixing.
The Purpose of Bail
When bail was first introduced as a legal concept during the Middle Ages in England, it was meant to keep people out of jail. Rather than keep defendants in a jail cell before and during trial, magistrates would set people free and guarantee they come back to face their charges with a bond.
This idea was such an important component of the English Bill of Rights that the founders of the U.S Constitution included it in the Eighth Amendment. It states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.”
Modern Bail Makes Justice Unequal
Unfortunately, using bail as a tool to set people free has been almost completely lost for a large segment of the population in Texas and other states. When bail is set in a criminal case, defendants have several ways to pay: put up the cash, use a commercial bail bondsman, or have their attorney meet the bond.
For many relatively poor defendants, however, none of these options will work. The reason for this is that many people simply can’t afford bail even if it’s a few hundred or thousand dollars.
Commercial bail bondsmen don’t consider small bonds worth their investment. As a result, many defendants with DWI or other similar charges stay in jail until their plea, are found not-guilty in court, or finish their sentences after conviction.
Jail is a place no one wants to be, making the pressure to get out at any cost immense. Well-off defendants can make rational decisions about how to proceed with their case in a comfortable environment. But if you’re sitting in jail until your case is processed, you can lose custody of your children, lose your job, and suffer a wide range of other negative consequences.
In these circumstances, you may feel forced to plea even if an attorney could prove your innocence in a trial. The result of this situation is clear: the more money you have, the better the justice system works for you.
Possible SolutionsDefendants making guilty pleas and spending excessive time in jail simply because they can’t meet bail is a problem in desperate need of a solution. In New York, the Bronx Freedom Fund is attempting to solve the problem by providing bail for defendants who can’t afford it.
According to an article from Slate.com, “in more than 50 percent of the cases in which bail was posted [by the BFF] the charges were entirely dismissed.”
Another proposed solution to the bail problem is to extend the use of pretrial services. Defendants in this situation would face an independent assessment from an agency that would help determine their release conditions. Unfortunately, this type of setup still presumes guilt before innocence, making it unfair to defendants who face relatively minor offenses.