The lights of downtown Los Angeles shine behind a Quick Bail Bonds building across from the Men's Central Jail. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

More than a half million Americans are currently behind bars without a conviction, many because they can't afford to post bail.

Why it matters: Poor people already are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. While it serves as a means of ensuring defendants appear for trial, bail can further penalize poverty.

"People should be in jail because they are a menace to society, because they are not going to show up for court. They should not be in jail because they're broke."
— Larry Krasner, Philadelphia District Attorney, tells "Axios on HBO"

People who have can't afford to pay bail face 3 options:

  1. Waiting in jail until their court hearing, which is sometimes months away. They could risk losing their jobs or being unable to care for family members.
  2. Bail bondsmen: The U.S. is also the only nation beside the Philippines to have a legal bail bond industry, which allows companies to pay a defendant's bond in exchange for a fee (typically 15% of the bail price). It is now a $2 billion industry, and bondsmen have become an influential force in some local and state governments.
  3. Plead guilty: Faced with staying behind bars for a long period of time, some defendants will plead guilty — whether or not they are — in order to be released on time served or probation. But this leaves them with a record, and if they violate any probation rules they could quickly end up back behind bars.
"Where you have people's livelihoods depending on a steady supply of human bodies to put in cages, wherever profit is a major part of the system; it is going to get twisted up."
— Larry Krasner, "Axios on HBO"

The big picture: Krasner last year ended cash bail for most low-level, non-violent crimes in Philadelphia, which led to a 22% decrease in the number of people who spent at least one night in jail, according to one study.

He told "Axios on HBO" he plans to roll out a more expansive version of the policy that could take into account less serious violent crimes as well. He has also been working with state and national legislators on how broader policies might work, amid a wave of anti-cash bail actions by government and industry in the U.S.

  • In 2018, California lawmakers passed a bill to end cash bail, but the bail bond industry fought back with a referendum. The bill's fate will be decided by voters in 2020.
  • A federal judge also ruled there is no constitutional right to cash bail, allowing New Jersey to continue prioritizing other kinds of incentives for showing up to court.
  • Google and Facebook stopped allowing bail bonds services to advertise on their platforms.
  • Many 2020 presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O'Rourke, have called for ending cash bail.

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