In our current system, the rich who are arrested quickly post bail, but those who are poor can spend extended periods of time in jail without a conviction. Our justice system must understand, while the punishment should fit the crime, cash bail disproportionately impacts poorer people, making it inherently unfair. In other words: It’s time for Florida to end cash bail.
Recently, Atlanta approved a change to the cash bail system which would eliminate cash bail for low-level offenders. The Atlanta mayor justified it by saying it made no sense to hold these low-level offenders when it may cost more to keep them in jail than the bail would have brought in. Places like Washington, D.C., have taken on similar policies.
Some charges, like disorderly conduct, may disproportionately affect those who have bigger problems such as the homeless or mentally ill. Bail is often assigned without a thought about the person’s ability to pay. A $1,000 bail could be a drop in the bucket for some, and for others it can mean their family not being able to eat for the next couple of months. This is not equality. There’s little regulation of what judges can charge for bail, and some may have a standard bail they issue without really considering the facts of the case. In a country where few people could come up with $2,000 without borrowing, bail can greatly increase financial stress on families.
Being in jail for an extended period of time, even if just for a few months for a crime one did not commit, can ruin a person’s life. Considering this, here are other countries that have come up with more equitable systems of punishment.
In Finland, traffic fines are calculated based on a formula that takes into account the amount of spending money the person has for the day then divides it by two, according to the Atlantic. This is considered a reasonable amount for a fine based on their income, and then the system governs how many days a person will be deprived of their spending money. For a speeding ticket, this would be based on how many miles over the speed limit the person was driving. Countries like Sweden, Denmark and Australia have similar systems.
Those who are rich end up getting out of jail quickly by paying bail. Anyone who does not have savings could be stuck sitting in jail, and those are often the people who cannot afford to lose their jobs. A more equitable system would release nonviolent offenders without bail, and remand the violent offenders to jail. According to The Nation, arrestees who have not yet been convicted of anything make up 79% of the jail population nationally and are one of the reasons the U.S. has such a high incarceration rate. If “innocent until proven guilty” is supposed to be the standard, spending an extended time in jail undoubtedly taints a person and can get them fired from a job or mean they lose their living arrangements.
It’s unfair to ask those who are charged with nonviolent crimes — who should be presumed innocent — to put their life on hold. A system with cash bail puts too much power in the hands of judges, who often do not take into account the person’s financial situation, and end up punishing the offender before they’ve been convicted of any crime, even if they may have no history of prior offenses.
Like many other issues, this disproportionately affects minorities. Florida should take initiative in making our justice system less about punishing people who have yet to be convicted and more about crime that has a negative impact on society.
Nicole Dan is a UF political science and journalism senior. Her columns focus on race and culture.