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How did we get here?

Guilty of Being Poor

A Collaboration between UNIS Human Rights Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

“We have a system of justice in this country that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.” This is according to Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. America's cash bail system stacks the criminal justice system against those who are poor. 77% of people in jail in NYC have not been convicted of a crime. They are simply too poor to post even low bail to get out while their cases are being processed, while those with financial resources are often able to get out, regardless of the crime committed. Typically, those detained in jail are required to pay $10,000 in money bail, and most who are unable to make bail belong to the poorest third of our society. 

Bail was originally designed to incentivize people to show up for their court dates, but it has since evolved into a system that separates the financially well-off from the poor. Arrested individuals are required to pay money to get out of jail while they await trial, but those who can’t afford bail wind up having to sit in jail. In turn, they may be at risk of missing rent payments, losing their jobs and failing to meet other responsibilities.

The inability to make bail can have devastating consequences. Other than personal safety in jail, there is the risk of losing a job, custody of children and public housing. Faced with all of these prospects, as well as the possibility of sitting in jail for months or even years, tens of thousand of people accept plea deals.

A core principle of the justice system in the U.S. is innocent until proven guilty. This should not depend on race or income, but when someone gets locked up, and can’t afford bail, they have two choices: plead guilty to the crime, or wait in jail until the backlogged courts can bring them to trial, which in many cases can take years. Pleading guilty could lead to a shorter sentence and the ability to go home, but those who do carry a criminal record for life. Poverty robs the poor of both the presumption of innocence and their right to a fair trial.

The damage doesn’t end with a guilty plea. Bail fuels a cycle of poverty by pushing already-struggling families to face the prospect of the loss of a job, eviction or deportation while they await trial in jail. Those who can scrape together the money may be forced to choose between paying bail and paying rent, or buying any number of things they and their families depend on.

The Truth About the Money Bail Industry

Test your knowledge.

Chapter 06

Question 01

What percentage of those held in NYC jails have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial?

Correct! Wrong!

The answer is 75% for all of NYC. On Rikers, it is 80%. Nationally, it is 60%.

Chapter 06 — Question 01
Continue to

Chapter Seven

The Front Door