The bail system, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is meant to ensure that all defendants, presumed innocent before trial, get a shot at freedom and return to court, reported NBC News.
But allowing people to pay for their release has proved unfair to people who don’t have much money. The poor are far more likely to get stuck in jail, which makes them far more likely to get fired from jobs, lose custody of children, plead guilty to something they didn’t do, serve time in prison and suffer the lifelong consequences of a criminal conviction. Those who borrow from a bail bondsman often fall into crippling debt.
At the same time, the wealthy can buy their way out of pretrial detention on just about any offense, including murder.
The bald inequity of this system has triggered a national movement to eliminate bail altogether.
But what to replace it with?
In New Jersey, the answer is an algorithm, a mathematical formula to determine whether someone is likely to return to court for trial or get arrested again.
This is what the new vision of American justice looks like.
Created by data scientists and criminal-justice researchers, the algorithm — one of dozens of “risk assessment tools” being used around the country — promises to use data to scrub the system of bias by keeping only the most dangerous defendants behind bars, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Six months into this venture, New Jersey jails are already starting to empty, and the number of people locked up while awaiting trial has dropped.
But it’s also become clear that data is no wonder drug.
The new system — driven by years of research involving hundreds of thousands of cases and requiring multimillion-dollar technology upgrades and the hiring of more judges, prosecutors and court workers — still produces contentious decisions about who deserves freedom and who does not.
Police officials and prosecutors have complained about the release of people charged with gun crimes, fleeing police, attacking an officer, sex offenses and domestic violence — and of those who keep getting re-arrested. In at least two cases, people have been killed by men who’d been released on earlier charges. The bail bond industry, facing extinction, has backed two federal lawsuits seeking to end the algorithm’s use.
Defense lawyers and civil rights advocates, meanwhile, say people who pose little risk have been ordered detained, only to be given plea deals or had their charges dropped — a sign, they fear, that authorities are exploiting the new system to generate convictions.
And it remains unclear whether the new approach will reduce racial disparities, drive down crime rates or be fiscally sustainable.
Still, it is the best alternative anyone’s come up with.
And if this grand experiment works in New Jersey, it could become a model for the rest of the country.
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