Abby Johnson: For poor, bail means jail

When I was growing up, “the poor house” was where my father said we would end up if our family spent too much money. The poor house conjured visions from my reading of bleak, dank orphanages where gruel and cruel were served in unequal but unrelenting portions, a nightmare with no awakening.

Today’s poor house is embedded in our justice system. It’s money bail for those who can pay, but jail for poor people, sanctioned by our laws and justice system.

Consider one Las Vegas woman’s experience. A new mom on a payment plan for previous traffic tickets, she missed a payment because she was on leave from work to care for her infant. A warrant was issued for her arrest, and she was picked up, booked, and jailed because she couldn’t afford the cash bail. In Nevada, all traffic tickets are a criminal matter, not civil. Not paying traffic tickets can quickly escalate to arrest for a criminal offense and jail for those who can’t pay.

It’s a daunting domino effect that can start with a broken tail light and end with loss of job, custody of children, housing and more. Right now, pretrial, people with cash are released on bail for these minor transgressions; poor people are locked up for the same offenses.

The Conference of State Court Administrators agreed in a 2013 policy paper. “.... Economic status (is) a significant factor in determining whether a defendant is released pending trial, instead of such factors as risk of flight and threat to public safety.” They concluded, “In short, for the poor, bail means jail.”

Pretrial policies have driven recent jail population growth in Nevada, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Beginning at the turn of this century, the rate of pre-trial incarceration has steadily increased while the number of convicted people locked up has remained relatively steady. The contrast is stark. As reported in the Nevada Independent in August 2018, “The state’s overall incarceration rate is 15 percent higher than the national average, while its female incarceration rate is 43 percent higher than the national average.”

Bail amounts aren’t consistent within Nevada. A 2016 study by the National Center for State Courts found bail amounts range from $2,115 to $10,000 depending on the county. For someone living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck — there’s no extra cash for bail.

What about the children? A 2016 study by the Annie F. Casey Foundation concluded having a parent in jail or prison is “a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being.” The report found 8 percent of Nevada’s children have experienced parental incarceration.

The Nevada Legislature is considering AB 325, comprehensive bail reform, to right these wrongs. The proposed bill, which had a hearing last week in Assembly Judiciary, clarifies the law for judges bail isn’t money but instead a system of release. It would direct judges to presume pretrial release and to consider affordability if imposing financial conditions.

“Our current wealth-based cash bail system criminalizes poverty and disproportionately harms communities of color,” said PLAN Action’s Laura Martin in written testimony.

By enacting AB 325, the Legislature and Gov. Sisolak can fix the cash bail injustice that’s clogging jails and harming people in poverty. End the poor house now!

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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