Three statistics to start this off:
1) Roughly 2.2 million Americans are behind bars on any given day;
2) With 4.4% of the world’s population, the US incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners;
3) One-third of them have not been convicted of the crime for which they’re being held.
That’s right: one-third, or approximately 800,000 Americans are in local jails (usually considered the hardest place to do time) on suspicion of having committed a crime. They have been charged but not yet tried. They’re innocent because they haven’t been proven guilty. Many are found not guilty after trial.
This website breaks down the incarcerated population into various categories: ICE detention, pre-trial detention, juvenile facilities, and other categories, such as the nature of the charges, in a particularly readable format:
Someone who has been arrested, in most circumstances, has an option of one bail with no conditions and another with conditions (like regular check-ins, random drug tests, or stay-away orders). Both amounts are usually unaffordable to all but the most wealthy (tens of thousands of dollars). So, unless you’re very wealthy, if you’ve been charged with a crime, you sit in jail. Phrased in reverse: the U.S. jails hundreds of thousands of people at any given time for being poor.
Cesspools of Germs:
Jail, it goes without saying, is an unsanitary, unhealthy environment under the best of circumstances. Large groups of people live in tight space with little or no access to soap, toilet paper, or running water. Right now, with COVID-19, it’s a vector of infection for the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years, potentially infecting these people and their family and anyone else they come into contact with.
All I did the first week after the pandemic was declared was try to get clients who are serving pre-trial detention out of custody by filing motions to reduce bail or to release people without bail. People released without bail can be released on their own recognizance (a promise to return to court to face trial), placed on a GPS monitor, told to check in with probation or a conditional release agency, or any of a number of conditions designed to ensure cooperation.
Study after study shows that people released without posting bail (or a bond) return to court as required as often or more often than those who stand to lose the money they posted. They are no more likely to reoffend, either.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jails are trying to reduce their populations as fast as they can by releasing, without bail, people who don’t need to be incarcerated before trial. In Ramsey County, Minnesota (St. Paul) where I mostly work, the County Attorney (who prosecutes felonies) and the sheriff (who runs the jail) are, on their own, preparing lists of detainees who can be immediately released. These include people charged with non-violent offenses (such as theft), people with no or little criminal history, and people charged with drug offenses. Many of these people are being released before I can even file motions and argue for their release.
COVID-19 Forces Reform:
This raises the question, of course, of why we incarcerated them in the first place. When people sit in jail for days, weeks, or months, they lose their jobs, they can lose custody of their kids, they don’t pay bills, so vehicles get repossessed, elderly parents are not checked on, and a cascade of consequences follows from which they may never recovered, even if eventually found not guilty of the crime they were charged with.
We’ll see, eventually, the results of this ad hoc test of what we bail reformers have been looking for. I’m betting we learn that hundreds of thousands of people did not have to spend all of this time in jail awaiting trial, and the U.S. will join other developed countries in only punishing the guilty!
Call me if you need to get someone out of jail or you want to discuss release options.