A $50,000 bond for a 43-cent theft: How the cash bail system favors the wealthy

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 09/29/2021, 5:48 PM
Edited: 09/29/2021, 5:51 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) Last month, a homeless man in Duncannon, Pennsylvania paid a convenience store $2 for a bottle of Mountain Dew and then left. But the soda cost 43 cents more than that, and after the Exxon store called the police, Joseph Sobolewski was arrested, receiving a felony charge and a $50,000 cash bond, PennLive reported.

Read this story on Big If True here.

After seven days in jail, a public defender asked a judge to reconsider Sobolewski’s bond. The court changed it to an unsecured bond, which defendants in criminal cases only owe if they fail to appear in court.

In theory, the purpose of cash bonds is to ensure people facing criminal charges make their court appearances. In practice, the use of bail illustrates how wealthy and low-income defendants have much different experiences with the criminal justice system.

In many local and state courts, bond amounts don’t take into account how much a defendant can afford to pay. Instead, bail is often set using a bond schedule – a list of charges paired with a suggested bail amount.

If a defendant can pay the court their total bond, that amount will be returned to them after the case is resolved. Instead, most defendants and their families use a bail agent, paying a private company a fee that will never be returned to them, usually 10% of the bail amount.

People of color often receive higher bail amounts than white defendants. From 2012 to 2014, Delaware courts issued bonds for Black people that were $5,000 higher on average than those for white people, according to a study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

If they can’t make bail, low-income people can spend weeks, months or longer in jail on charges for which they haven’t been convicted.

“Many people in cities across our country are spending more time in pre-trial detention than they would ever receive if they’re even found guilty at all, and I think that turns our ideas about justice upside down,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Those who remain in detention could be held in facilities that are understaffed and in extremely poor conditions.

One such facility, the Oklahoma County jail in downtown Oklahoma City, was the subject of an unannounced inspection by the state health department in June, which found numerous violations. People held in the jail often use plastic bags rather than toilets because of longstanding plumbing problems, and an inmate died at the understaffed facility during a hostage situation in March.

During a public meeting last month, Oklahoma state Rep. Jason Lowe (D-Oklahoma City), who is a criminal defense attorney, said that prosecutors leverage conditions at the jail to push defendants to take plea deals.

“It’s a continuous cycle,” he said. “Individuals who are incarcerated, they want to get out of there so bad that they’re taking the first deal. They’re becoming convicted felons. It’s ruining the rest of their lives.”

Research shows that people who can’t afford bail are more likely to take plea deals, even if they aren’t guilty. Data from Brooklyn Defender Services in New York found that their incarcerated clients were nine times more likely to plead guilty than those who had been released.

In Tulsa County, Oklahoma, a bond docket means defendants can ask for lower bonds sooner

During the pandemic, some state and local courts reduced or eliminated bonds to keep jail populations down. Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Robert Ravitz said early efforts to reduce bonds and release people held on misdemeanors had tapered off by the summer last year.

“There are several people who died recently in jail as a result of contracting covid that, as a practical matter, should have easily, in my opinion, been released on their own recognizance,” Ravitz said.

Inmates released on their own recognizance can leave custody without posting bail.

Bond practices can vary by the court and the judge. Tulsa County has a docket dedicated to holding bond hearings seven days a week. During the hearings, a judge reviews each defendant’s history with the justice system and sets a bail that considers what they can afford to pay. Cameron Pipe, an Oklahoma-based operations manager for national nonprofit The Bail Project, said because the docket is held every day, even on holidays, defendants can usually meet with the court within two days of their arrest.

In Oklahoma County, Pipe said defendants’ first opportunity to seek a lower bond is during their arraignment, which is usually four to seven days after their arrest.

Bail amounts also depend on the courthouse and judge, echoed in an analysis of 2018 data from Oklahoma Policy Institute. People facing nonviolent felony charges received average bails of $4,000 in Tulsa County and $5,000 in Oklahoma County, compared to $16,000 on the high end in Ellis County, which has one of the lowest populations in the state.

In recent years, several lawsuits have led courts to rule against unconstitutional bail practices. That happened in Hamblen County, Tennessee, where a homeless woman had received a $35,000 bond on a disorderly conduct charge. Now the county can’t jail anyone without setting a bail that considers the defendant’s ability to pay.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled the bail system in Harris County, Texas had violated due process and was unconstitutional. Also in Texas, a federal judge banned Dallas County from setting bail based on a bond schedule, ruling in 2018 that the practice was unconstitutional and led impoverished defendants to stay in jail, while those who could pay were released.

How The Bail Project bonds out incarcerated clients and gets them back to court

To decrease the number of people failing to appear, some organizations are working to build a network around defendants to help them make their court dates. Meghan Guevara, executive partner for the Pretrial Justice Institute, said people who miss appearances are rarely fleeing prosecution and more likely to have forgotten or had a conflict arise, like work or child care demands.

“The court is looking to get people back, and people just need some support, the way the rest of us need a reminder about our dentist appointments or doctor’s appointments,” Guevara said. “The most effective intervention that we’ve seen is just court reminders – text messages, phone calls that remind people of when their court date is to make sure that they get back on time.”

The Bail Project pays bonds for people who can’t afford them. In Oklahoma, the nonprofit works with defendants in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties and bails out 40 to 60 people each month, Pipe said.

Paying bail is only part of what Pipe and his colleagues do. The nonprofit’s staff works with the defendants after their release to make sure they return to court. They stay in regular contact with their clients and connect them with resources to help them meet basic needs, like housing.

The nonprofit provides its clients with reminders of their court dates by text or a phone call, as well as transportation to each one.

“The way that we’re able to be successful is if we get our clients back to court, all that money is actually coming back to us, and then we’re able to keep reusing it,” Pipe said. “On average, we’re able to use the same dollar about three times each year.”

Nationwide, Pipe said The Bail Project’s clients appear for their court dates 93% of the time.

“Whenever you consider the ability to get people back to court at a really high rate, while they have no collateral, no money of their own on the line, it really begs the question, is cash bail really necessary?” Pipe said.

Contact BigIfTrue.org editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or bryant@bigiftrue.org. Follow her on Twitter.

This report was funded by our readers. BigIfTrue.org is a 501(c)(3) news nonprofit based in Oklahoma City, and you can support our independent journalism here.


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