clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“A multibillion-dollar toll”: how cash bail hits poor people of color the hardest

A new UCLA report finds that thousands in LA jails are “too poor to pay the price for freedom.”

prison Shutterstock

A new report shows how the use of money bail in the city of Los Angeles has spawned a massive industry built on the backs of poor communities of color.

The report, released Monday by UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods Research team, which conducts data mapping projects about the Los Angeles jail system, found that from 2012 to 2016, more than $19 billion in cash bail was levied against people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. (According to researchers, the $19 billion figure only reflects what was set during LAPD bookings and does not include adjustments later made by courts.) The researchers concluded that “city residents pay a steep price before their innocence or guilt has been determined,” making the Los Angeles jail system — one of the country’s largest — a significant driver of inequality.

The report notes that the amount of bail levied disproportionately fell onto low-income blacks and Latinos. “This is an extraordinary amount of wealth taken primarily from low-income, communities of color,” Kelly Lytle Hernandez, the interim director of UCLA’s African American Studies department and one of the authors of the report, said in a statement.

Money bail requires payment for freedom, a costly burden for poor people of color

Typically, a person charged cash bail has two options: forego payment and stay in jail until their matter is resolved in court, or enter into a contract with a bail bond company to avoid jail time while waiting to be arraigned. If the person chooses release on a bond contract, a bail bond agent promises to pay the full amount should the accused fail to appear in court. In exchange for this, bail bond companies require the arrested person, or someone acting on their behalf, to pay a nonrefundable deposit equal to a set percentage of their total bail. The UCLA report notes that in many cases, the deposit is set at 10 percent.

A breakdown tracking bail deposits with race and gender reveals that people of color were the most likely to pay, with Latinos paying $92.1 million in deposits between 2012 and 2016. African Americans came next at $40.7 million, while whites paid $37.9 million during the same period.

The report notes that the deposits do not include other administrative, service, and interest fees usually charged by bail bond companies, nor property like houses and cars that are typically held as collateral. In all, a person can end up paying thousands of dollars to a bail bonds company just to avoid pre-arraignment incarceration.

The amount paid in bail bond deposits may seem substantial, but an even larger amount goes unpaid entirely, forcing thousands to remain in police custody. The UCLA researchers note that roughly $13.5 billion in bail money went unpaid in the 2012-2016 period, leaving “223,366 people in LAPD custody prior to arraignment.”

The report’s findings track with other research into who is most affected by the use of cash bail. The bail system “releases defendants based solely on their ability to pay, without regard for their public safety risk or probability of appearing at future court dates,” another group of UCLA researchers noted in a report earlier this year. “Under this system, low-risk and low-income defendants will continue to lose their freedom solely based on their economic status.”

This burden also affects women of color dealing with the arrest of a loved one. The Million Dollar Hoods researchers noted that women most likely paid a large share of bail deposits in Los Angeles, pointing to a 2015 report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. That report said that in reviewed cases where family members were responsible for court-related costs, the majority were women. Roughly one in four women are related to someone who is incarcerated. Among black women, that ratio jumps to two in five.

It’s worth noting that these numbers do not include the number of women who are themselves caught in the justice system, an increasing number of which are women of color. Still, as the Ella Baker Center report noted, the costs associated with incarceration “hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.