Bail and Mass Incarceration
44 Pages Posted: 30 May 2019
Date Written: 2018
It is widely known that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, and the causes and ramifications of mass incarceration are the subject of intense study. It is also increasingly widely recognized that the high rates of pretrial detention, often linked to the use of money bail, are unjust, expensive, and often counterproductive. But, so far, the links between money bail, pretrial detention, and mass incarceration have been largely unexplored. Our criminal justice system relies primarily on plea bargains to secure convictions at a relatively low cost. And, as shown by recent empirical work, the bail system, which results in high pretrial detention rates for indigent defendants, plays a significant role in incentivizing quick pleas, and leads to more convictions and longer sentences. Releasing more defendants pretrial would generate more pretrial motions, lengthier plea negotiations, and more trials, and would thus raise the cost — in the form of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges — of convictions and imprisonment. In other words, if we release significantly more defendants pretrial, we will have to either spend more on criminal justice or convict fewer people and punish them less severely. In addition to inducing quick, inexpensive guilty pleas from defendants unable to post bond, money bail also plays a more subtle role in sustaining high incarceration rates. Money bail, by its very nature, discriminates based on wealth, and thus provides a built-in sorting mechanism — politically weak low-income defendants are pushed into the quick-plea process, while wealthier defendants are able to obtain release and the increased access to more robust process that it affords. If politically better-represented wealthy and middle-class defendants were detained, and thus subjected to at least some of the same pressures to plead guilty as indigent defendants, there would, in all likelihood, be more demand for reform.
This Article explores the role of bail in mass incarceration, concluding that opponents of mass incarceration should pay increased attention to the pretrial process as a locus of reform. Relatedly, it analyzes the likely impact of the bail–plea bargain link on future bail reform — which, of course, serves important interests beyond reducing the prison population, such as fairness and the avoidance of wrongful convictions.
Keywords: bail, bail reform, plea bargain, plea bargaining, guilty plea, mass incarceration, prison, jail, prosecutor, criminal, criminal defendant, defendant, criminal procedure, pretrial, conviction, conviction rates, indigent, wealth
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