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How High Bail Costs Contribute to Systemic Poverty

Last month, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act to encourage states to reform their bail systems. Beyond shrinking our overly expanded incarcerated population, bail reform would boost the United States’ stagnating income mobility by reforming a system that traps the poor in poverty.

Of the 646,000 people in local jails, 70% have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Upward mobility has stalled. According to Stanford Professor of Economics Raj Chetty, “social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years.” Of those born into the bottom income quintile, more than a third remain there as adults. However, progressives who blame the free market misdiagnose the problem.

A 50-state analysis found that in more economically free states – those with fewer labor regulations and smaller governments – the wealth of the poor rises more quickly than the wealth of the rich because freer markets produce more opportunity for everyone. The problem is that government policies like steep bail hamstring low-income individuals’ efforts to advance.

When low-income Americans can’t pay their bail, they go to jail. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, of the 646,000 people in local jails, 70 percent have not yet been convicted of a crime. Most are awaiting their trial. In 2002, those jailed had a median income of $15,109 prior to incarceration. Many inmates are there due to low-level crimes, like not paying a traffic ticket or driving without a license.

Jail Time Is a Huge Economic Hurdle

Being jailed reduces earnings. Jailed individuals often lose their jobs when they don’t show up to work the next day. Many individuals even plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to avoid the weeks or months of jail time associated with a bail they can’t afford. The Journal of Legal Studies found that when judges assigned a money bail, suspects were 12 percent more likely to be convicted, in part because they were more likely to plead guilty to avoid jail and in part because they had less access to their public defenders.

This can have profound future implications, as many employers are leery of hiring people with a criminal record. Jailed individuals are even likely to become repeat criminals: the same study found that pretrial detention caused a 6-9 percent increase in recidivism.

Jail hurts poor people twice, first by depriving them of income behind bars and then by stigmatizing them once they are free.

These factors add up to lower earnings: a Pew study found incarceration reduced individuals’ yearly earnings by 40 percent. Formerly incarcerated Americans are hit even harder over the course of a lifetime: according to the same study, “By age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” This doesn’t factor in the loss of income jailed individuals suffer while waiting for their trial.

When individuals are prevented from working and pushed into scenarios that encourage recidivism, they’re less able to escape poverty.

Jail hurts poor people twice: once by depriving them of income behind bars and once by stigmatizing them once they are free. The end result is less income mobility. Formerly incarcerated men in the bottom earnings quintile were twice as likely to still be there 20 years later, compared to men who were never sent to jail or prison. While part of this is due to the fact that incarcerated individuals are more likely to be frequent criminals, part is due to the negative effects of even one jail stretch.

Jail Time Hurts People Who Aren’t Criminals

Jail time also hurts the children of the incarcerated, creating inter-generational poverty. According to a meta-study on the subject, children with incarcerated parents are three times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves. Having an incarcerated parent can leave children with psychological scars such as depression, and can even aggravate learning disabilities.

Even when individuals can make bail and remain free until trial, they often require a bail bond to do so. A bail bond is a payment an insurance company makes on the accused’s behalf, but these companies often charge a payment of 10 percent of bail. The average bail for a felony is $10,000, and even misdemeanors often have four-figure bail amounts. Bail bonds often amount to a substantial fine that the working poor are ill-equipped to pay.

Bail bonds often amount to a substantial fine that the working poor are ill-equipped to pay.

Even individuals who can pull together the money for bail on their own may find that it wipes out their savings. While bail money is refunded at trial, going without thousands of dollars for several weeks can leave people, especially poor people, in danger of financial ruin.

Economic mobility is relatively strong for non-incarcerated individuals. Pew notes that 15 percent of never-incarcerated Americans who start in the bottom economic quintile end up in the top quintile. Our bail systems force poor individuals to choose between unfeasible short-term fees that can spell financial ruin, or the long-term earning potential loss that comes with jail time. For these people, upward mobility is a broken promise.

Julian Adorney


Julian Adorney
Julian Adorney is a Young Voices Advocate. His work has been featured in dozens of outlets, including National Review, Fox News’ Nation, and Lawrence Reed’s best-selling economics anthology Excuse Me, Professor.
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Standing on the Backs of the Poor

Kitia Harris is a single mother raising her eight-year-old daughter in Detroit. Recently, she picked up a minor traffic ticket for “impeding traffic” totaling $276 in court fines and fees. Living off just $1,200 a month in disability payments—not enough to cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other basic needs—she was unable to pay her traffic fines.

Because she cannot afford her outstanding court debt, Michigan suspended her license.

Kitia has never committed a crime, and for many years she worked hard in low-wage jobs to support herself and her daughter. In 2014, she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure that prevents her from working.

Without a driver’s license, everything is more expensive. Kitia’s disability requires regular medical treatments. Now, instead of driving herself to her appointments, she must pay others to drive her. And because Detroit has the worst public transportation system of any major city in the country, she must also pay for rides for daily tasks like grocery shopping, or picking up her daughter. By forcing her to pay more just to get around, Michigan has trapped her in a cycle of poverty.

This is not fair, and it’s not justice.

Like Kitia, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are poor. In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt or failure to appear.

These residents have not been judged too dangerous to drive; they are not a threat behind the wheel; they have not caused serious injuries while driving. In the vast majority of cases, their only “crime” is that they are too poor to pay.

Michigan’s model creates two different justice systems based on wealth status. For the rich, a minor infraction (like changing lanes without a turn signal) would result in a fine of maybe $135. For those who are poor and unable to pay, the same infraction could eventually lead to a license suspension. This suspension scheme violates our commonly held standards of justice: States should not dole out punishment simply based on wealth status.

But perhaps more importantly: Michigan’s scheme is terrible public policy.

These suspensions laws are trapping productive residents in a cycle of poverty. It’s crushing for Kitia and her daughter, and it is especially bad for Michigan. As a state famous for its poorly managed fiscal situation, Michigan should help its residents pay back their court debt. Instead, the state is making it much harder for them to do so.

On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for this wealth-based suspension scheme. Our lawsuit seeks to return licenses to the hundreds of thousands of drivers who have had their licenses suspended solely for the inability to pay court debt, and it asks the state to cease poverty-based suspensions in the future. We are not asking Michigan to change the way it treats drivers who are truly a threat on the road. Nothing we’re asking would allow a driver to commit reckless driving offenses.

We’re only asking that the state stop punishing people for being poor.

We are also asking that Michigan consider alternatives that many other states successfully employ. There should be an ability-to-pay hearing before any license is suspended. If someone is unable to pay due to poverty status, they should be given alternatives, like community service or payment plans. Some states offer payment plans as low as $5 per month.

Some supporters of Michigan’s suspension law claim that those who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets should drive more carefully. But this argument is exactly the kind of unequal justice we must fight against. Our justice system should not be premised on the notion that the rich get to buy their way out of trouble while the poor live under a sword of Damocles for not using a turn signal.

Others say that it’s unfair for poor people to get out of fines just because they’re unable to pay. What I ask of those folks is empathy. For many people—including Kitia Harris—poverty is not a choice. Kitia was raised without a mother or father, spending the majority of her childhood in foster care.

Now 25, she has never had a reliable, supportive adult in her life. She has lived her life in poverty. Calling it “unfair” that Kitia keep her driver’s license even though she cannot pay her court debt misses the fact that Kitia is doing everything in her power to make ends meet.

If she could pay her court debt, she would.

Instead of punishing someone who cannot pay their court debt, Michigan—and every other state—would be better off if people like Kitia were helped to break the cycle of poverty and repay the debt they owe.

Phil Telfeyan

Rather than making life harder and more expensive for Kitia, Michigan could provide her with the tools she needs to get back on her feet. Especially in a place like Detroit, which offers no meaningful public transportation option, Kitia needs a way to get around.

She needs empathy from us, and justice from our justice system.

 

Phil Telfeyan is founding director of Equal Justice Under Law a Washington, DC based nonprofit that challenges “wealth-based discrimination.”  He served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice for five years, where he specialized in employment discrimination and immigrants’ rights. He welcomes comments from readers.

 

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OBAMA IS RIGHT: TERRORISM HAS TAKEN OVER CABLE NEWS

In an interview with NPR this week, President Obama complained that the media is oversaturated with coverage of terrorism. “If you’ve been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you,” Obama said.

The president’s remarks led to quick condemnation from the right-wing press, but the facts support what he is saying. The Intercept analyzed network news coverage of various topics, using Internet Archive’s TV News Archive search of television captions, and found that terrorism did dominate news.

For example, a search of CNN coverage between November 21 and December 21 of this year yielded 427 hits (instances where an individual show mentioned the word at least once) for the search phrase “terrorism” and 404 hits for “ISIS”; the same search for “poverty” yielded only 34 hits. Here are the terrorism search strings compared to the other topics in chart form (note that the anti-privacy CISA legislation, directly related to terrorism, was not mentioned at all):

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Here’s the same search when run for MSNBC:

And here’s Fox News:

 

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CONTACT THE AUTHOR:

Zaid Jilani

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As He Cries From the Bench ‘Santa’ Judge Buys Christmas Present for Accused Shoplifter’s Disabled Child

Rock Hill Judge Ray Long worked Christmas Day, handling bonds for those arrested Christmas Eve

Long showed ‘mercy’ in several bonds so that defendants could go home for Christmas

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The Rise of History’s Biggest Empire – The Military Industrial Complex Is Scarier Than You Think

In a sobering piece of history Abby Martin shows us how corrupt the United States Government has been acting around the world while mainstream media and ALL of our elected officials line up and lie to us about what we do on a daily basis.  This video is one of the most accurate pieces of military history broadcast in recent memory while also exposing the military industrial complex the blunt way it needs to be.  Please watch:

“The United State routinely breaks international laws and treaties with no repercussions from the international body”

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people.  Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses…”  “I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of the time being a high muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

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The Prison Dilemma: Racism and the War On Drugs

It appears that Congress is finally about to take some action to reverse the mistakes of the and the burgeoning prison population. A number of conservatives and liberals seem to agree that something needs to be done to reduce the prison population which is the highest per capita of any developed nation. Republican… Continue reading The Prison Dilemma: Racism and the War On Drugs

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US Expanding Internet Access in Low-Income Communities

WASHINGTON — A new program to connect low-income households in public housing with access and Internet-capable devices announced Wednesday will aim particularly at children and include training to help program participants maximize their use of the new devices and technology. ConnectHome will link 270,000 households, and 200,000 children, with broadband access in 28 communities including… Continue reading US Expanding Internet Access in Low-Income Communities

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1.7 Million More Children Live in Low-Income Working Families Today Than in Midst of Great Recession

Rising Tide of Economic Recovery Did Not Lift All Boats — It Left Millions Shipwrecked, According to New KIDS COUNT Data BookState and federal policies that focus simultaneously on children and their parents can help more families enjoy the nation’s growing prosperity BALTIMORE, July 21, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — About 1.7 million more children live in low-income… Continue reading 1.7 Million More Children Live in Low-Income Working Families Today Than in Midst of Great Recession

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Minority, Low-Income Communities Bear Risk From Oil Trains In California

People of color and low-income communities are bearing a disproportionate burden of risk from dangerous rolling through , according to a new report by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment. Called “Crude Injustice On The Rails,” the report found that 80 percent of the 5.5 million Californians with homes in the oil train… Continue reading Minority, Low-Income Communities Bear Risk From Oil Trains In California

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Obama Wants to Give $1 Billion to Central American Gov’ts Fighting Massive Corruption Scandals

MEXICO CITY — If timing is everything in politics, then scandals currently wracking Honduras and Guatemala could not have come at a worse moment. The Central American nations are in a crucial phase of lobbying for new US funds to help them break out of a cycle of poverty and violence. The direly needed aid was… Continue reading Obama Wants to Give $1 Billion to Central American Gov’ts Fighting Massive Corruption Scandals