It’s time for leaders to put their money where their mouths are. Cash bail is a problem that has festered within the criminal justice system for years, and while the status quo can be troublesome for poor people, it can also hammer the state’s fiscal standing. The Missouri government’s bills exceed its assets by billions, according to some reports. Couple that with Gov. Mike Parson’s more than $448 million spending cutback in June, mostly from education, and the picture becomes clear: It is time for the state to explore creative ways to address its economic quagmire brought on by the present pandemic.
Cash bail needs Missouri reforms
That is where cash bail reform comes in. Beyond the trouble this causes the individual, it adds up quickly for the taxpayers, too. According to the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, the state government owes county jails $33 million, and that bill is only going to go up.
For those who are not familiar with the cash bail system, here is how it works: When individuals are unable to post bail, they must remain in jail until their trial date. Then the bills begin to add up — processing, housing, feeding and health care are just the beginning. Those who work in law enforcement know the system is expensive and broken, and has been for a while.
In 2016, Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said, “It was shocking that hundreds of people were jailed for nonviolent crimes because they couldn’t post bails of $1,000 or less.” The next year, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans made judges set the lowest possible bail for all defendants who pose low public safety risks. As a result, there was a vast increase in the number of people released from jail. Chicago is not alone. The same result could also be seen in New York, where lawmakers passed a bill, although not perfect, that would remove bail for various misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. It led to 90% of those arrested in New York being freed as they waited for their trial.
Critics of bail reform often argue that releasing offenders before their trial date without bail would lead to a significant increase in crime within the community, and it would incentivize them to fail to return for their court date. However, these criticisms are not supported by the facts. A Loyola University study looked into the effects of bail reform in Cook County. It found there to be “no significant change” in additional violent crime, felony or misdemeanor arrests of released individuals when comparing data from before and after the reforms were enacted. If critics were correct, crime should go up, right? The study also found that these reforms helped defendants save $31.4 million in bail, which means the defendants as well as taxpayers benefited.
The reality is the current cash bail system is an overbroad policy that is ripe for reform, particularly when it comes to offenders of non-violent and minor crimes. At a time when the state’s budget is struggling to stay afloat, this should be an easy fix. Until then, the bills will continue to add up. In fact, it could cost the state anywhere from $85 to $164 per day as individuals await their trial, and the average case lasts about 182 days from arraignment to sentencing. Do the math: Costs could range anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 just because a defendant couldn’t afford to post bail.
Missouri should join other states that are taking up criminal justice reforms. These changes could help lawmakers save big and show they are willing to think outside the box when it comes to helping their constituents until the pandemic is over. As Walt Disney once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”