Long before a judge ever brings down his or her gavel and sentences someone to time behind bars, there are reforms that could make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, more efficient — and less costly.
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s (known) prison population. About 2.2 million people are behind bars, with more than 64,000 held in local jails.
Many individuals are held in jails before any conviction ruling because they are unable to pay bail. In fact, an estimated seventy percent of that jail population is legally presumed to be innocent. These are people being detained pre-trial, the majority of whom simply have not posted bond. This system means that people without access to money stay behind bars, while those with means can walk free – even if they pose a higher risk to public safety.
Detaining people who are too poor to pay doesn’t make us any safer, and it can have a devastating financial and psychological impact on already vulnerable populations. Some people are held for years before being tried, but even a few days of pre-trial detention can affect someone’s ability to keep their job, attend school, or care for their family. According to the pre-trial Justice Institute, people who are held pre-trial are both more likely to be sentenced and likely to have longer sentences. We support policies that reform the use of cash bail to ensure that the decision to release a defendant before trial isn't solely determined by the ability to pay.
Fines and Fees:
The impact of monetary penalties has also come into sharp focus as justice reformers examine how the expanded use of court fines and fees can trap people in modern-day “debtors prisons.”
The Supreme Court established protections against imprisoning defendants merely because they are poor. However, some states continue to jail indigent people who cannot afford to pay legal debts, further entrapping them in a cycle of poverty.
People often face debt at the other end of the system as well, returning home from jail or prison with outstanding fees. In many states, people can be charged “room and board” for their incarceration, be charged for parole supervision, and even asked to pay for their jury trial. An inability to pay these fees can lead to the suspension of your driver’s license or even a longer probation term. Ultimately, it becomes nearly – or completely – impossible for vulnerable people to disentangle themselves from the justice system.
Defendants without adequate financial resources can also end up behind bars because they lack effective legal representation. The right to counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is the primary safeguard for individuals within the justice system. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainright, guaranteed that right extended to all persons, despite their ability to pay for an attorney. Sadly, public defense programs are systematically underfunded, and public defenders carry high caseloads all across the country. Adequate representation early in the process ensures individuals’ rights are protected and can significantly impact pre-trial detention decisions.
We're working to limit the federalization of state and local courts to ensure that appropriate jurisdictions prosecute criminal conduct. Furthermore, by increasing transparency and expanding research behind prosecutorial decision-making, we can shed light on the critical decisions that are made in our justice system.
Studies have shown that full cognitive development in the human brain doesn't occur until the age of 25 or older. We support policies that ensure no person under the age of 18, charged with an offense, is prosecuted as an adult without proper judicial review or process.
Raising the Felony Theft Threshold:
Since 2007, at least 37 states have raised the felony and larceny-theft thresholds at which prosecutors can charge a theft offense as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor. Raising theft thresholds ensures that costly prison beds aren't used to house low-level, nonviolent offenders. Our Coalition supports policies that ensure felony theft thresholds aren't set arbitrarily low and have been adjusted for inflation over time.