When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they have a hearing. A judge orders bail in order to either keep them off the street if they are considered dangerous, or to increase the odds that they’ll show up for court.
End of story.
What’s obscured here is that the actual bail system in Texas (and nearly every other state) too often serves to punish poverty, exacerbate mental illness and burden the state with unnecessary costs while failing to make the public any safer.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
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We have the knowledge and tools to replace our current resource-based bail system with a risk-based pretrial system.
Consider who is in our jails right now. In many instances, nearly two-thirds of Texas jail inmates are awaiting trial, considered legally innocent, but unable to post bail.
In some counties, this statistic is more extreme. During February, more than 75 percent of detained individuals at the Tarrant County Jail were awaiting trial, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
And on any given day, Texas jails are holding more than 6,400 people awaiting trial who have symptoms of serious mental illness.
The money bail system pushes people who cannot afford to post bail into a difficult choice.
They can either maintain their innocence and stay in jail, where they probably will jeopardize their mental health, family relationships, jobs and housing. Or they can plead guilty.
Research shows that even short periods of incarceration can negatively affect a person’s health.
Once jailed, people no longer have access to mental health treatments. They face disruptions in medication access, a loss of social support and a greater risk of abuse.
Jails are designed to be correctional settings, not therapeutic ones.
Unable to purchase their freedom, unconvicted jail detainees are seven times as likely to commit suicide as their convicted peers.
An ineffective bail system defined by high costs and few rewards survives because it stands upon a structure of perverse incentives.
First, bail money profits the powerful bail bond lobby. Second, the financial bail system increases pressure on defendants to plead guilty, which speeds up pretrial proceedings for overwhelmed court dockets.
Bail reform provides a unique opportunity to divert Texans from sinking deeper and deeper into the criminal justice system.
To change the system, we need to abandon money bail schemes and adopt a front-end diversion strategy like that enabled by the Public Safety Assessment tool recently developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
The Public Safety Assessment is a data-driven tool that uses unbiased risk factors to help judges determine whether a defendant should be released into the community safely, released under supervision, or detained while awaiting trial.
The assessment would decrease current pretrial detention costs, reduce future recidivism and, most important, improve mental health outcomes for vulnerable Texans.
By adopting a risk-based assessment tool, Texas can once again take the lead in transforming the criminal justice landscape.
Lynda Frost is the director of planning and programs for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin.