A bail bonds business in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 7, 2015. Officials say they’re eliminating cash bail for thousands of New Yorkers accused of misdemeanor and non-violent felonies in an effort to divert them from Rikers. 
Photo by Kathy Willens/AP

Sandra Bland’s death shows why our cash bail system is unconscionable

Sandra Bland, Rexdale W. Henry, Tevin Garcia, Kindra Chapman. Four people in three weeks who died in jail, detained not because of risk, but because of money.

Their deaths highlight an irrational and unconstitutional system of jailing based on wealth in America. For Garcia, the bail that would have saved his life was just $100. For Bland, the number was $5,000, or $500 to a local bondsman that would have kept the sum in exchange for fronting the full amount.

Who doesn’t have a few hundred dollars to bond out? More than you think: Nearly half of Americans don’t have the savings to afford a $400 emergency of any kind.

And yet, across the country, cash bail has become so ingrained in our national consciousness that hearing people couldn’t get out for want of a few hundred dollars ceases to shock or surprise us. It should.

RELATED: The DOJ’s Ferguson report shows why our bail system is a disaster

Jail is a destabilizing place, no matter how well designed or staffed. People held in jail before trial are far more likely to commit a crime in the future. They are likely to lose wages, jobs, and housing. The experience itself is  dehumanizing, and can have long-term effects on people’s physical and mental health.

With so much on the line, it is unconscionable that we would allow a person’s bank account balance to determine who is and is not detained. Adding insult to injury is the fact that, while people who can’t afford even modest bail languish behind bars, the rich and dangerous can simply buy their way out.

“Cash bail has become so ingrained in our national consciousness that hearing people couldn’t get out for want of a few hundred dollars ceases to shock or surprise us. It should.”
Cherise Fanno Burdeen, Pretrial Justice Institute.
But this system isn’t confined to discrimination based on money: It’s no accident that the most high-profile jail deaths have been people of color. Black, Latino, and Native American defendants have long faced higher bail amounts than their white counterparts with similar charges, and overall are twice as likely to be stuck in jail because they can’t afford the cost of liberty.

A full 60% of Americans in our nation’s jails have not yet been to trial, and studies suggest that as many as 9 in 10 of those people are there because they can’t afford bond.

Jail has become a holding place, not for people who are dangerous, but for people who are poor, suffer from mental illness, or have committed minor offenses like smoking marijuana or failing to signal a lane change. This is a national crisis: jailing someone can no longer be taken lightly. Depriving someone of their liberty is a serious action with serious consequences for people’s lives, livelihoods, and overall wellbeing. We should only do it for the most dangerous so we can keep our victims, families and communities safe.

Our nation is beginning to see that a cavalier attitude toward imprisonment – allowing $100 to determine a person’s fate – cannot be defended. It is ruining lives, making us less safe, and costing us a staggering $16.3 billion taxpayer dollars a year to boot.

This is easily fixable, as our Constitution already bars the jailing of Americans for cash. From Washington, D.C., to New York City, many communities are already pushing to move beyond cash bail. But others still need to be reminded that cash bail violates our rights, runs counter to our values, and has proven to encourage future crime – destroying lives and communities.

RELATED: Teen faces higher bail than Baltimore cops accused of murder

In the aftermath of Ferguson, a Department of Justice report on the county found wanton use of fines and fees to jail poor black residents. The jailings often went unrecorded, because, as one local official said, “it’s only three days anyway.”

Sandra Bland died after just three days in jail. Whether or not she took her own life, our outdated bail laws are complicit in her death. Two weeks later, Ralkina Jones died after just three days in jail, before she reached a bail hearing. Three days in jail can be the difference between life or death, between success and failure at a job, between keeping your house and missing the mortgage payment.

Even three days in jail matters.

It is time for us to take action. Waller County, in jailing Sandra Bland for cash, was acting outside of the Constitution of the United States. Jailing people for cash, the Justice Department agrees, is unconstitutional, and it must stop.

We call on Waller County, and every city and state in America, to take action on this issue and end the use of cash bail. Only risk, and never money, should be used to determine who we jail. It’s time to restore the justice in our justice system and end debtors prisons once and for all in America.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen is executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

Justice System, Prison and Prison Reform

Sandra Bland’s death shows why our cash bail system is unconscionable