If you get arrested for anything but the most serious crimes, you can get out of jail by posting a cash bond.

For most people, that means paying a bail-bondsman a fee to put up the bail and promise the court you will return for hearings and trials.

Or, you languish in jail if you and your family members can’t afford what a bail-bondsman will charge for your freedom.

The system is used by most states to allow defendants to be free unless they have been convicted of crimes. It also gives someone a vested interest in making sure you show up at court.

The problem is that it can be unfair to people who can’t afford to get out of jail.

“There’s a lot of confusion about bails,” said LSU criminologist Peter Scharf. “If you’re sitting in the Terrebonne or Lafourche jail, it’s much more difficult to get an acquittal than if you’re on the street. Why? Because you have the right lawyer and witnesses. The question of equity in the application of bail is a critical issue.”

And that is the crux of the issue.

How much money a defendant has should not be the one most important factor in determining whether he or she is able to go free or must sit in jail until their cases are resolved.

Our justice system is not supposed to treat people differently based on how wealthy or poor they are. But that is exactly what tends to happen under the current bail system.

It is worth exploring alternatives that might give defendants strong incentives to come back to court without locking away people who simply cannot afford to purchase their freedom.

Some states have done away with cash bails altogether. One reform idea is to implement an assessment system that assigns bond values based on the defendant’s risk to the community rather than simply having certain values for certain charges.

Some estimates say that seven out of 10 people in American prisons are there awaiting trial – meaning they have not been convicted of any crime. That means that we have a problem that deserves attention and thought.

There might not be an easy answer for how to replace our current system, but the people who are sitting behind bars simply because they can’t afford to get out deserve a better alternative.

 

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.