Home for the Holidays Thanks to Bail Reform
Millions of Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday gathered around the dinner table, carving stuffed turkeys, and highlighting their appreciations. Thanks to bail reform in New Jersey, this Thanksgiving introduced a sacred season of remembrance and sharing with thousands more New Jerseyans at home with their loved ones instead of awaiting trial behind bars.
New Jersey passed comprehensive bail reform legislation in 2014, which became effective on Jan. 1 of this year, and nearly eliminated money bail. Data through the end of September shows that the pretrial jail population has already dropped by 36 percent when compared with September 2015.
The near elimination of monetary bail signals a momentous racial and social justice victory for New Jersey. This legislative decision upends the very foundations of a would-be under-caste in New Jersey.
Money bail inherently discriminates and unfairly targets poor people. State reliance on a money-based system generates far-reaching impacts on people of color – people disproportionately living in poverty. Structural poverty and political powerlessness reduce classes of people to invisibility and non-human status in the name of American criminal justice.
Communities of color pay a high cost for the systemic imposition and national maintenance of poverty. Children and families bear witness daily to the high moral costs of racialized, gendered and criminalized poverty. The criminalization of poverty empties homes of parents, breadwinners and children.
Preying on generations of Americans, the monetary bail system is a driving force for the overrepresentation of people of color in our criminal justice system. Racial identities and bail amounts correlate in morally tragic ways. African-American men, on average, receive bail amounts 35 percent higher than white men. Hispanic men, on average, receive bail amounts 19 percent higher than white men. We daily warehouse black, brown and poor white bodies for low-level offenses, often guaranteeing the disintegration of their lives, termination of their employment, discontinuation of their housing or court-ordered dislocation of children. Moreover, the pretrial stage of the criminal justice system is one of the most important. A person’s ability to await trial in the community versus awaiting trial behind bars has a significant impact on outcomes for his or her case. Research confirms that individuals who await trial behind bars are more likely to be sentenced to jail and prison terms and to be given longer sentences than individuals who await trial in the community.
New Jersey should be proud of the progress we’ve made in the pretrial system. It was only a few years ago that a report commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance found that 40 percent of individuals awaiting trial in New Jersey’s jails were there solely because they could not afford the cash bail imposed on them. Though New Jersey remains the American capital of racially inequitable incarceration, we stand before a rare luminous opportunity to forge the way forward.
The Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III is senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pleasantville.