John Oliver on Sunday slammed another aspect of the American criminal justice system that disproportionately hurts the poor — bail.
"Increasingly, bail has become a way to lock up the poor regardless of guilt," Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "The problem is the frequency and cost of bail have risen dramatically, and it's disproportionately hurting the poor."
Bail is the amount of money someone has to pay to get out of jail while awaiting trial. It's supposed to act as a financial incentive to get people to show up to trial. If a defendant posts bail, he can get his money back if he shows up in court and is deemed not guilty. If he doesn't attend, he's out of that money.
But Oliver argues the system is increasingly punishing the poor more than anyone else.
The disparity begins with the ability to pay. Poor defendants are going to have a much more difficult time than wealthy people paying for bail, which can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If someone fails to pay bail, they're forced to remain in jail — a situation that can be particularly devastating for the poor. "Our clients work at jobs where if you're absent, you're fired," Josh Saunders, an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, said in a video by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. "Our clients live in shelters or in transitional housing — places where if you're not there for the night, your place is gone. So there are a lot of different ways in which incarceration, even for a short period of time, can really destroy someone's life."
These dire circumstances push many poor people to plead guilty even if they're not, just to stay out of jail. "You sit in jail because you can't afford to pay your way to freedom," David Feige, a former public defender, told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "And you're often confronted with a deal that goes like this: plead guilty, get out, [or] maintain your innocence and go to trial, stay in."
If someone wants to avoid both these options, he can turn to commercial bail bonds, which will loan people money to pay for their bail. But, as Oliver explains, this imposes its own costs. Under normal circumstances, people get their bail money back if they're deemed not guilty. With bonds, people typically have to pay 10 to 15 percent of their bail to a bondsman regardless of the outcome of a trial. "So if your bail is $5,000 and you're found innocent, then you've basically just paid a $750 fee to a bondsman for doing absolutely nothing wrong," Oliver said.
If someone hires a bondsman and doesn't show up to trial, the bondsman can hire a bounty hunter to track down and detain the defendant — and these bounty hunters face very few regulations. In 18 states, for example, someone can become a bail recovery agent regardless of education, training, or prior criminal history, according to a study by Grand Valley State University researchers.
Bounty hunters can also break into people's homes and carry weapons, which can lead to devastating consequences. Oliver pointed to several instances in which bounty hunters broke into the wrong house, used a stun gun on the wrong person, and shot and killed a person's dog.
What's the alternative to all of this? In federal courts and Washington, DC, courts are only allowed to set bail if the defendant can afford it. To ensure people don't flee or commit a crime while out, the system checks if someone poses a flight risk or is dangerous. If a judge decides a defendant is not, the person can go home, where a person may be monitored further by drug tests and ankle monitors. This can cost governments less money: one analysis by the Administrative Office of US Courts found supervision by pretrial services officers costs about a tenth as much as keeping someone locked up.
"Our current bail system makes no sense, and it does a lot of harm," Oliver said, citing a news clip from 1964. "And the frustrating thing is we've known this for a longer time."