End money bail to transform the lives of women and families across the nation

When Le’Char's brother was arrested, her mother was forced to put up the family home as collateral to pay his bail. “The bail bondsman became the co-owner of everything my family worked hard for,” Le’Char says. “We are forever in debt because of it.”

Women with incarcerated loved ones know the predatory bail system in and out. When we get that phone call that someone is inside, we put up our houses, we dive into savings, and stumble into debt to bring our family home. Meanwhile, the bail industry takes billions in profits from our communities. That’s why, in California and around the country, women with incarcerated loved ones are leading the fight to end money bail once and for all.


We applaud Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) for joining the growing national movement to end money bail by prioritizing this issue and introducing the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017. If passed, the bipartisan bill would authorize $10 million over three years to encourage states to replace or reform the practice of the unjust, costly money bail system. The passage of this law would be historic, helping reshape how bail works in every state and community.

Ending money bail is a crucial step to transforming our unjust justice system. Our society’s over-reliance on prisons and punishment instead of real community prosperity and safety harms us all. We have long known that the money bail system is broken and corrupt. An encounter with bail or the bail industry is one of the first steps on the path in a larger system of mass incarceration that has devastated our communities--including women with incarcerated loved ones.  

Today, more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States. One in four women and nearly one in two black women has a family member in prison. Across the country, there are 646,000 people locked up in jails. Seventy percent of these people are being held pretrial—meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. The bail bonds industry continues to exploit vulnerable communities, and it has severe consequences. Too many times, people have had to sacrifice their jobs, home and basic needs just to pay off the debt.

Women bear the lion’s share of the financial and emotional hardships associated with money bail, particularly women of color and low-income women. The average family has to pay over $13,000 for fees and fines from having an incarcerated loved one—including the high cost of bail—which sends more than a third of families into debt. Women make up more than 80 percent of family members who pay for court-related costs.

In California, where the average median bail is $50,000, efforts are underway to end money bail. Essie Justice Group is a co-sponsor of SB 10, which if passed will eliminate money bail and is steadily gaining traction in California’s legislature.

Essie has brought members like Le’Char to the capitol to share powerful testimonies in support of bail reform; we believe the women most impacted by the system are best positioned to develop the solutions that will transform it.

In addition to California, states like New Jersey and cities like Chicago have also taken on the fight to end money bail. As jurisdictions look to reform and replace the money bail system, policymakers must ensure that the changes they adopt meet three basic requirements of progressive bail reform as follows:

  • Stop punishing poverty: States must ensure that a person charged with a crime will never be incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay the full bail amount without payments plans, use of a bail bonds agent, or taking out a loan.
  • Don’t put more people behind bars: Reforms should not further harm communities by expanding the number of people in jails and ineligible for release. Reformers should take care that new statutes do not make an increased use of preventative detention more likely.
  • Impose the least restrictive conditions: Reforms must provide guidance for judges to apply the least restrictive conditions when releasing someone, so that individuals can get back to their jobs, their families, and their communities while awaiting trial. This means explicitly requiring that conditions of release not impose fees on people charged and their families. It also means discouraging the over use of highly restrictive GPS and other monitoring devices.

We believe that any attempt to reform bail that would lead to an increase in people subject to electronic monitoring or surveillance, puts more people in probation prior to conviction, or increases the number of days people are held in custody, is the wrong way forward. In addition, given the long history of over-policing and over-incarceration in black and brown communities, where residents are too often deemed risky or dangerous by law enforcement simply because of their race or zip code, we urge individualized needs assessments rather than profile-based risk assessments.

By transforming our current, harmful money bail practices, we free up resources that women and families can instead channel toward supporting our loved ones, putting all our communities on a better path to safety and prosperity.

Gina Clayton is founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.