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Denouncing America's "Debtor Prison" System, Sanders Introduces Bill to End Cash Bail

"In the year 2018, in the United States, we should not continue having a 'debtor prison' system."

Protesters gather outside the Pine Lawn Police Department in Missouri. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Taking aim at one of the most exploitative components of America's broken criminal justice system, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday introduced a bill that would end the "destructive and unjust cash bail process" that keeps hundreds of thousands of people locked up at a given moment due to their inability to pay their way out of jail.

"Poverty is not a crime," Sanders declared in a press release unveiling his legislation, which is formally titled the No Money Bail Act. "In the year 2018, in the United States, we should not continue having a 'debtor prison' system."

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has introduced a companion bill in the House, added in a statement on Wednesday that America's "money bail system is irrational and dangerous. People who are not at high risk but are poor remain incarcerated, while people who may be dangerous are set free if they have the funds. It's maddening to see that those with money can buy their freedom while poor defendants languish behind bars while awaiting trial."

"It has always been clear that we have separate criminal justice systems in this country for the poor and for the rich."
No Money Bail Act, summary

"I'm grateful Sen. Sanders is introducing a bill that moves to end our justice system's reliance on money bail," Lieu added.

Citing the well-known fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a summary (pdf) of Sanders' new legislation argued that "what's even worse is nearly a quarter of all people incarcerated on any given day in the
U.S. are 'unconvicted'—meaning they are sitting in jail waiting for a trial, or plea bargain, or some sort of conclusion to their case."

"Pretrial detention is bad for society and bad for our criminal justice system," the bill's summary notes. "People held pretrial are missing days of work. They are missing time with their families. Often enough, they run the risk of missing a rent payment and losing their housing."

But while the cash bail system has a devastating impact on the poor and vulnerable, it is a boon for the for-profit bail industry, which Sanders says rakes in "between $1.4 and $2.4 billion each year."

"It has always been clear that we have separate criminal justice systems in this country for the poor and for the rich," the bill's synopsis notes. "A wealthy person charged with a serious crime may get an ankle monitor and told not to leave the country; a poor person charged with a misdemeanor may sit in a jail cell. And this disproportionately affects minorities—fifty percent of all pretrial detainees are Black or Latinx."

According to Sanders' office, the Vermont senator's new legislation would

formally end the use of secured bonds in federal criminal proceedings, provide grants to states that wish to implement alternate pretrial systems to reduce their pretrial detention population and withholds grant funding from states that continue to use money bail systems. It would also require a study three years after implementation to ensure the new alternate systems are also not leading to disparate detention rates.

Sanders' legislation has been endorsed by Color of Change and the ACLU. Both groups have been at the forefront of a nationwide grassroots initiative aimed at "bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention."

"It's time to end our nation's current system of cash bail that lets the size of your wallet determine whether you are granted freedom or stay locked up," Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, declared in a statement launching the effort last year.

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