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Why fixing the US bail system is tricky
Cash bail is great…if you can pay for it.
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Lawmakers, activists, and reformers want to end cash bail, the practice of requiring a defendant to pay money to be released from jail before trial.
Mounting evidence has shown that cash bail unfairly affects low-income minorities who don’t have the money to pay for release before their trial. As a result, defendants languish in jail while waiting for court dates.
While in jail, many of them lose their jobs, housing, and parental rights, all of which can weaken their community network, erode domestic relationships, and cost the government money to keep them in jail.
Defenders of cash bail claim it is an effective mechanism for keeping violent criminals in jail. Despite their efforts to protect the status quo, several states have pursued bail reform. These states model their new systems on a pretrial risk assessment system. Risk assessments use algorithms to analyze data about a defendant and make recommendations for their pretrial release.
The District of Columbia has used risk assessments since the early 1990s with success. But many reform activists are concerned that when cash bail is replaced with risk assessments, courts are using another unjust — and potentially more biased — pretrial release mechanism.
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