The book of Ecclesiastes advises that the Almighty sends rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. American incarceration policy follows the same pattern. We've always locked up people who have been convicted of crimes. But in recent decades, we've made a practice of also jailing people who have not been convicted of crimes.
On any given day last year, some 631,000 people were held in city and county jails. Of that group, 75% are awaiting trial -- and, in our system, entitled to the presumption of innocence. But many defendants have learned that the presumption of innocence and $3 will get you a Starbucks latte. They are in jail for lack of the money to make bail.
This phenomenon has contributed to mass incarceration. In 1999, notes the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of convicted criminals held in local jails has been stable -- while the number of people merely awaiting trial has soared. Over the next 15 years, 99% of the growth in the jail population came from locking up people who have not been found guilty of anything. They were defendants who were denied bail or, more commonly, couldn't pay it.
Americans who run afoul of the police are generally entitled to be free until trial. The 14th Amendment says no one may be deprived of "life, liberty or property without due process of law." The 8th Amendment says, "Excessive bail shall not be required." Bail is supposed to serve two purposes: ensuring that defendants show up in court and protecting the community from those who pose a clear danger.
But huge numbers of those detained languish behind bars for days, weeks or months simply because their bail exceeds their financial means. Meanwhile, other defendants charged with the same offenses walk free because they have the money to buy their way out.
Those unjust realities have spawned a movement to eliminate cash bail for most defendants, replacing them with "personal recognizance bonds" -- a signed promise to appear in court. Among the jurisdictions that have adopted the change is Cook County, which, in 2017, began using money bonds less often, while reducing the amounts on those it imposed.
But this year, Chicago has been hit with a tidal wave of shootings and homicides, and critics -- notably Police Superintendent David Brown -- immediately blamed those bail reforms. If more arrestees were required to provide money for bail, the argument goes, fewer of them would be released and the community would be safer.
There's some truth to this theory. If everyone arrested were denied bail, none would commit crimes. But that's never been a realistic approach. Even before Cook County adopted these changes, the great majority of defendants were freed before trial.
The reforms, in fact, have had only a marginal effect on the number of defendants allowed out -- rising from 77% of those arrested to 81%, according to a new study by criminologists Don Stemen and David Olson of Loyola University Chicago, who examined the six months before and after the reforms took effect. That represents 500 more defendants.
The difference is that 57% of those freed didn't have to come up with cash, compared with 26% before. And 80% of those released didn't miss a single court appearance, only a slight decline. There was a huge measurable benefit to defendants and their families -- a savings of $31 million in bail costs.
From the evidence, the releases didn't generate a surge in violence. Before and after the changes, about 17% of the released defendants were rearrested. The share rearrested for violent crimes also remained stable, at about 3%. The overall crime rate, Stemen and Olson found, was not affected.
What's often forgotten is that the bail reforms don't prevent judges from denying bail to any arrestee who appears to be dangerous. In fact, the number of defendants held without bond doubled -- mostly those charged with violent crimes, weapons offenses and other serious felonies.
Still, freeing an additional 500 defendants equates to about 85 new charged offenses and about 15 new violent ones. But those numbers don't make the reforms a bad idea. To foil one person who would allegedly commit a violent crime, the county would have to lock up 32 people who wouldn't.
We're justified in keeping people behind bars because they are guilty. But to keep them behind bars because they are poor -- well, that's a crime.
Steve Chapman blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Chapman, visit www.creators.com.