The American criminal legal system must seek to balance the administration of justice and individuals’ right to freedom. Its design came shortly after the Revolutionary War when the American people demanded strong guarantees that rights recently won from the British monarchy would remain protected from new government overreach. Special emphasis was placed on protections for those accused of crimes, enshrining within the Bill of Rights clear boundaries around criminal investigations, trials, and sentences. Thus, from its earliest history, the United States provided for a robust criminal legal system, with guaranteed safeguards and a presumption of innocence for all.
But the framers left behind a fatal design flaw: cash bail. Originating in Europe many centuries before the dawn of the Republic, the practice of money bail offered an alternative to vengeful blood feuds. Instead of picking up arms against those believed to have done harm, Anglo-Saxon law required a judge to determine the guilt of an accused party. In order for that person to await a court hearing on the matter from home, there was the option to put money on the line. In this historical context, cash bail served a distinct purpose: incentivizing return to court and avoiding unsanctioned bloodshed from the mere accusation of a crime.
In demanding government limitations in criminal matters, early Americans fought for a presumption of innocence that valued freedom and justice equally—going so far as to enshrine a ban against excessive bail in the Constitution. They allowed cash bail to live on, relying on the lingering assumption that putting money on the line will make people come back to court.
But the continued use of cash bail has corrupted the system from within—steering it far from a mere incentive to return for a trial. Between 1970 and 2011, the pretrial jail population increased by 433 percent, primarily due to judges relying more and more on cash bail and setting it at amounts people could not afford. On any given day, nearly half a million people languish in jail cells across the country waiting for their cases to move forward. People detained pretrial now make up more than two-thirds of America’s jail population. While theoretically presumed innocent under the law, freedom remains out of reach unless the accused has enough money to pay for it. But this isn’t the only cost of the cash bail system; we all pay more than we know—morally, socially, and economically.