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Currently, the United States is undergoing historic criminal justice reform. Cash bail is one component being reviewed and eradicated, generating change in a system that has been intact not just for decades, but centuries. This is the first in a series of articles written specifically for SWOP Behind Bars (SBB) by a guest panel of authors on the history of cash bail, and the algorithms defining the future:
Feeling Safe Overshadows Fair Play By David Block
An ongoing problem in the U.S is that before certain citizens are formally charged with specific crimes, they are incarcerated and remain in custody because they cannot make bail. These actions are done in order to keep citizens safe. The desire for safety has overshadowed these peoples’ rights.
Bryce Covert of the Nation wrote, “The number of Americans sitting in jail without a conviction is larger than most other countries’ entire incarcerated population.” According to Covert, 70 percent of the incarcerated inmates face that predicament. They sit in jail because they cannot make bail, even though no formal charges were yet brought against them.
Cited at https://www.thenation.com/article/america-is-waking-up-to-the-injustice-of-cash-bail/
The treatment of these prisoners is unconstitutional. They are flagrant violations of the 8th and 14th Amendments. According to the U.S. Constitution, the 8th Amendment states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment prohibits the federal government from imposing unduly harsh penalties on criminal defendants, either as the price for obtaining pretrial release or as punishment for a crime after conviction.”
Cited at https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/
The 14th Amendment states: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Cited at https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv
The cash bail system in the U.S. was not set up to keep people not yet charged with crimes in jail for not making bail.
The bail system in the United States was supposed to emulate England’s bail system. Covert wrote that in England: Those accused of crimes were allowed to go free so long as a family member or associate promised to act as “surety” to the court on the accused’s behalf. If the accused fled and shirked the payment to the injured that was a typical sentence for most crimes, the surety would be responsible for making the restitution instead. From its earliest days as a British colony, the United States followed English bail laws.
Predicaments for arrested people in the U.S. worsened when the country developed its commercial bail-bond industry system because the lawmakers were convinced that few people on the frontier could act as sureties.
The desire to improve these peoples’ predicament is nothing new. In the 1960s, U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy “and the Vera Institute worked to increase the number of people released on their own recognizance.”
Cited at  https://www.thenation.com/article/america-is-waking-up-to-the-injustice-of-cash-bail/
Unfortunately, for these individuals, the high increase of crimes in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s caused most Americans to care more about their own personal safety than about violating amendments.
In the 1980s, some people applauded vigilantism. A key example is the subway gunman, Bernhard Goetz. When Goetz shot four African American youths in December 1984 on the subway when they surrounded him and asked him for five dollars, he became a national hero. Finally, someone was fighting back against those people who were making this country unsafe. (Because I was attacked a couple times in Pittsburgh in 1984 and because my mother was mugged in Boston the previous year, I was glad that Goetz shot those youths. In fact, I’m still happy about it. I did not care whether people were imprisoned because they could not make bail. I wanted to be safe.)
In 1987, Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted only of weapon possession for shooting four youths he claimed were muggers.
Cited at https://www.upi.com/Archives/1987/06/16/Bernhard-Goetz-the-subway-gunman-who-became-a-hero/6810550814400/
The mood of the time was to lock up possible suspects and throw away the key. According to Covert, “a 1987 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which allowed courts to consider public safety when setting the terms of release. ” Because the crime wave in this country is on the rise, it is hard to show sympathy for suspects who seem to be dangerous. The following chart shows the number of homicides committed in Philadelphia from 1988 through 2016.
See: http://data.philly.com/philly/crime/homicides/
In September 2017, The New York Times reported: Violent crime, including homicides, rose for the second consecutive year in 2016, driven by increases in a few urban centers including Baltimore, Chicago, and Las Vegas, according to F.B.I. data released. … A total of 17,250 people were murdered in 2016, the F.B.I. said.
Cited at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/us/violent-crime-murder-Chicago-increase-.html
Today the dilemma lingers: How can one be sympathetic with suspects’ rights when we live in a high crime society?
David Block is a Temple University masters journalism graduate from the Philadelphia suburbs. He has hundreds of articles published, specializing in Disability Rights and athletics. He has also contributed content prior to D/17 Philly. We truly thank David for his participation.

Nihil de nobis, sine nobis! – D/17 Philadelphia