Guest Column: Just Say No to Bail Jails
In Massachusetts, more than 5,000 women and men are jailed pretrial because they can’t make bail. They have been convicted of nothing. In February, at Framingham prison, 43 percent of women incarcerated there were awating trial. In October, 2013 at the Chicopee jail for women, 110 women were sentenced and 55 women were awaiting trail. People are held for months, usually because they do not have money for bail. Last year, the Massachusetts Bail Fund’s average bail amount posted was $350. Nationally, pretrial incarceration cost $9 billion yearly.
The Pretrial Working Group is a statewide coalition developing pretrial alternatives to incarceration. We are organizing for a cost-effective criminal justice system that ensures the human rights of residents as well as public safety by creating pretrial services and community-based wellness alternatives instead of building new jails to hold people who have been convicted of nothing. Most people held pretrial are not dangerous.
Alternatives to money bail include curfews, drug testing, stay away orders, restrictions on travel, court reminders, drug treatment and therapy. If you think these are expensive, remember a month in Framingham costs $4,800.
Pretrial programs in Kentucky, Maine, New York and Washington, D.C. demonstrate that most people can be safely released into the community while their legal case is pending. Washington, D.C. does not use money bail. There, 88 percent of people are released on their own recognizance.
Not using money bail results in significant cost savings. No-money bail causes less harm to the person and her/his family. No-money bail increases access to justice, since the person charged has a greater ability to meet with an attorney and is less likely to accept a plea bargain. Studies by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that someone held on bail is six times more likely to end up being sentenced to jail and, if convicted, receive a harsher sentence.
The Pretrial Working group is organizing to stop proposed state laws H1434 and S1870. H1434 is now before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The bill calls for building a bail jail in Middlesex County for women now held at Framingham. S1870, now in Ways and Means, calls for a special commission to recommend where to build bail jails for men and women in Middlesex County. We believe no new jail construction should proceed until bail reform and other pretrial diversion programs are implemented.
Massachusetts residents agree. In February the non-partisan MassINC Polling Group released its poll on criminal justice reform in Massachusetts. It found that 67 percent of people polled would prefer reforming the system so fewer people are sent to prison rather than building more prisons.
The Pretrial Working Group believes smart, effective reform is possible. We have the responsibility to ensure that the amount of money a person has does not affect the kind of justice she receives. New, costly and ineffective jails are not the solution.•
Lois Ahrens is the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and a member of the Pretrial Working Group.