This week during 1964, the late Attorney General Robert Kennedy painted a bleak picture. Jails were a place where poor men were sent to rot, while rich men went home to await court dates. “Bail has become a vehicle for systematic injustice,” my father told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing. “Every year in this country, thousands of persons are kept in jails for weeks and months following arrest. They are not yet proven guilty and may be no more likely to flee than you or me. But most of them stay in jail because, to be blunt, they cannot afford to pay for their freedom.”
His words set off the widespread awakening to the need for bail reform at the local and state levels. Yet as time went on, the tumult of the late 1960s eclipsed the critical issue, along with the deaths of many of our civil rights leaders and moral compasses, his among them. The winds of politics then changed, and in decades to come, the mass incarceration system evolved to demand more than $180 billion every year in the United States.
More than a half century after his death, my father would be stunned and saddened to see the situation worsen, with the social justice and equality which he fought and died for further from reality. Around 22,000 people had been held in federal jails pending their trials back in 1964. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 60,000 on the federal level today. Add to that the 470,000 held in local and county jails.
That number is high mostly due to the cash bail system, where defendants must pay a certain amount of money as a pledge that they will show up for future court dates. If they are not able to come up with such money either themselves or through a commercial bondsman, they can be incarcerated until their cases are resolved. The principle of innocent until proven guilty ends up only applying to the wealthy, leaving many behind bars who are forced to appear in jumpsuits and handcuffs before the judges.
The money bail system, simply put, makes freedom impossible for many defendants. Around 40 percent of Americans would struggle to come up with as little as $400 for a sudden unexpected expense. By contrast, the median bail bond typically represents more than a half of the annual pay for a defendant who has been detained. Further, blacks are incarcerated more often and likely to receive harsher sentences than whites.
The situation is worsened by the fact that people of color still face high rates of poverty. Consider that, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, the net worth of white families with college degrees has increased by 96 percent between 1992 and 2016, while for black families with college degrees, it has fallen by 10 percent.
There are reverberations of my father and other civil rights leaders of his time with the current movement against systemic racism, one that comes amidst a global pandemic, when jails and prisons serve as the significant clusters of the coronavirus. The freedom fighters know this today.
I have been proud to work with local organizers to end aggressive police tactics and mass incarceration targeting poor and black communities. I recently teamed up with Colin Kaepernick and his nonprofit, Know Your Rights Camp, to pay the necessary bail to free many people in jail simply because they are poor at this crucial time. As statues across the country are taken down, it seems our discourse is finally changing. A crucial part of this is rethinking the racist detention system based on money.
“Our bail system inflicts hardship on defendants. This inflicts considerable financial costs on society,” my father said in 1964. “Such cruelty and costs should not be tolerated in any event, but when they are needless, we have to ask ourselves why we have not developed a remedy long ago.”
Kerry Kennedy serves as the president of Robert Kennedy Human Rights.