A bail bonds building.

The high cost of bail bonds punishes defendants and their families before they are found guilty or innocent.

(Photo: ACLU)

Our Legal System Punishes Defendants and Their Relatives—Before They’re Found Guilty

Many hardships are forced on defendants and their families pre-trial, including the heavy pre-trial financial burdens imposed by the bail system and attorneys.

I still remember hearing the words—“He shot her!” These words would soon change my life and completely upend my perspective on a role model I once idealized. He helped me learn to play piano, showed me what a computer looks like behind all those screws and plastic, and taught me to calculate the area of a square. His encouragement was an early stepping-stone on my journey to a PhD in mathematics.

When I received a phone call telling me that he had been arrested for violence, I was first in denial and did not have a strong reaction; though hours later, I would feel both anger and sadness, and I would question whether he truly committed this awful crime. That questioning is important because as of yet, he is still awaiting a final verdict regarding his case. If we are to truly provide justice, our legal system should not punish this defendant or any other individuals prior to the receipt of a “guilty” verdict.

Yet our judicial system often inadvertently creates other “victims” beyond those of the crime itself. Despite the call of our legal system to presume the innocence of a defendant until and unless found guilty, many hardships are forced on defendants and their families pre-trial, including the heavy pre-trial financial burdens imposed by the bail system and attorneys. Research has shown that, in comparison to costly attorneys paid for by the defendants themselves, free court-appointed attorneys obtain worse sentences for the accused, indicating that people who are poor may be unable to appropriately defend themselves, while the rich are able to overturn or significantly reduce their sentences.

Why should I have been held accountable and put in this position? I did not commit any crime, but because my relative had no one else to turn to, his bills became a punishment inflicted on me by the bail system.

I have direct experience with the large financial punishment imposed on defendants and their families pre-trial. My relative’s bail bond was set at $50,000—an amount that I could not even begin to imagine being held accountable for, with only about one year of full-time work experience after my graduate studies.

Yet despite having never committed a crime myself, it soon became clear that the burden of this alleged crime was my responsibility. I received multiple calls in the coming days regarding bail bond agents—from agents themselves as well as my relative. They all explained to me that the accused could not assume responsibility for the bond himself; I would need to take responsibility for the bond. As the only non-minor kin that the defendant maintained regular contact with, the financial liability fell on me for the bail bond as well as all of his other affairs. I soon found myself paying his internet, electricity, water, and other bills. Why should I have been held accountable and put in this position? I did not commit any crime, but because my relative had no one else to turn to, his bills became a punishment inflicted on me by the bail system.

As I paid the defendant’s bills, my credit score began to drop with the extra charges, ultimately falling more than 50 points. This story is not only my own, but the story of many who are unable to afford a bond.

While in jail because he was unable to post bail, my relative informed me of illegal activity a witness had engaged in—activity that I thought was relevant to his case. In response, I called the inmate’s free court-appointed attorney. However, after hearing only a small parcel of explanation, the lawyer told me that he was done listening to me, as he felt the discussion was irrelevant to my relative’s case.

Because the court-assigned lawyer would not listen to me, I began the process of holding consultations with other attorneys, trying to find well-suited representation. My relative said he was only provided a couple minutes on the phone each day—simply not enough time to have these consultations himself, and definitely not enough to successfully find an attorney on his own.

After I selected an attorney and paid an initial retainer, my relative was afforded a bond reduction hearing, at which multiple witnesses appeared. It was the intention of the one aforementioned witness, in particular, to fight the bond reduction and try to keep my relative in jail. In response to this, my attorney informed this witness that he was aware of her illegal activity. This simple yet effective warning convinced the witness to forgo the pushback against the bond reduction, allowing the defendant’s bond to be reduced down to $10,000. The very same information that the court-appointed attorney refused to hear allowed the inmate’s bond to be extensively reduced to an amount that I could afford.

The outcome of my relative’s bond reduction is not unique. Studies indicate that sentences are often harsher when free court-appointed attorneys are utilized. While some believe that poverty is not the only factor contributing to this disparity, the fact still remains: Had the court-appointed counsel been the legal representative, my relative’s bond would not have been as easily and readily reduced. For my relative, the acquisition of our attorney afforded him the ability to be released from jail on bond. If I had not been able to retain this attorney, my relative may very well have stayed in jail, and I would have continued to be punished as well—despite having never been even charged with a crime—through the necessity of handling his affairs and continuing to pay legal fees for a decent attorney who actually listens to their clients.

The reality is that with wealth comes options—the option to have an attorney of your own choosing, the option to secure release from jail through payment of a bond, etc. Individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds cannot afford these options and are subjected to severe disadvantages in our justice system. Due to racial disparities in wealth, these individuals are often people of color.

This systemic problem has persisted far too long. It is time for us to work to end this disparity and provide more resources for individuals in our judicial system. Indigent defendants can be provided with more and better options for legal counsel. The cash bail system can also be largely eliminated, as Illinois is currently considering. With our current technology, there are alternatives to cash bail that we can consider—such as providing non-violent offenders who can’t afford bail the option to be released with an ankle bracelet for tracking purposes.

While some may oppose Illinois’s proposed legislation, saying that it should be reworded, altered, or revoked, a driving motivation behind the measure is engrained in our court system—the idea that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In its current form, the bonding system often imposes pre-trial punishment despite “presumed innocence.” This punishment is felt not only by defendants, but also by their innocent family and relatives. This was most certainly the case in my experience, and I hope to one day see a world where no other innocent individual is forced to face this hardship—a world where our legal system is much more equitable and just, with proper resources and options for people who are indigent as well as minorities.

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