The Answer–Why Our Jails Are Crowded

In most of the cities across the country, our jails are crowded to bursting.  Why is this?  Here’s the answer: $78!!jails are crowded

As an example, in my city, Minneapolis, when low-level offenders are arrested they are put in jail until their first court appearance.  At that time, bail is routinely set at $78 which basically covers some of the cost of housing and feeding them while the prisoners wait for their day in court.

Unfortunately, many of the low-level offenders are poor and can’t even afford to pay the $78—so they sit and our jails are crowded as a result.

Why does this obvious problem exist?  Most court systems in the country use a risk assessment tool for determining the bail to be set by the judge.  The purpose of the tool is to answer two questions:

  1. Will the accused probably return to court?
  2. Will the public be safe if the accused is released back to the community?

The tool asks several questions of the accused such as employment, housing status, time in the community, family ties, past criminal record, if any, and other similar questions.  Most poor people can’t answer those questions in a way that would convince a judge to release them without bail.  That’s why our jails are crowded with these kinds of cases.

This tool works well for high-level offenders: murderers, rapists, armed robbers, etc.  It doesn’t work well for low level-offenders: trespassers, not obeying police, possessors of pot pipes, loiterers, etc.

So what? some people ask.  Aren’t these people still criminals?  Of course, but is it fair to make people sit in jail just because they’re poor?  Is it good for the taxpayers to pay to hold these low-level offenders?  In addition, many low-level offenders often plead guilty—even if they are not guilty—in order to get our of jail.  They’re worried about losing even marginal jobs or housing.  That’s not fair to them.  Here’s an excellent article from the Star Tribune about efforts happening in Minneapolis to correct this problem–

The Adult Detention Initiative was formed to deal with the fact our jails are crowded and what can be done to correct that.  It involves people from the police, courts, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and the sheriff of the county.  They’re making progress.  For instance, they’re considering using a different risk assessment tool from the one used for high-level offenders.  The new one would, instead, measure social service needs such as mental illness, disabilities that prevent the accused from working, lack of family or ties to the community.

Maybe the $78 bail barrier will drop as the new tools and awareness gets into the criminal justice system.  It could reduce the problem of our jails are crowded—for the benefit of everyone.

Do you have any ideas about this or comments?  Anything to add?  I’d love to hear it.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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