Why Cash Bail is Instrumental to Criminal Justice Reform

By Manasaa M

It’s no doubt that the Criminal Justice system in the United States needs drastic reform. Activists, ranging from teenagers to young adults, have been and are currently fighting for reform in policing, an end to mass incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana, etc. In such places of discourse, though, the Cash Bailis an issue unintentionally overlooked when discussing Criminal Justice Reform.

What is Cash Bail?

Cash Bail is a set amount of money a defendant has to pay to use as a “guarantee that [they] will return for a trial or hearings” (Center for American Progress).

As of now, only three states have abolished the use of cash bail in most criminal trial cases. In other words, that means that no state in the United States has truly abolished cash bail. For those accused of serious crimes, bail can be more than a million dollars.

However, less serious offenses themselves can approximately range from $20,000 to $50,000. For those living in states where there are significant low-income rates such as Kentucky, the average household income is $48,392. When the cash bail is significantly higher than one’s annual income, it poses a serious issue and can keep those living in low-income situations in a perpetuating cycle of poverty.

In a country that emphasizes the idea of the “American Dream” and upwards social mobility, the idea of cash bail is completely contradictory to the latter.

Why should Cash Bail be abolished?

Those who cannot afford to pay the amount of cash bail are criminalized, which is an issue that disproportionately affects BIPOC and low-income individuals; institutionalized racism has caused inequities in housing, healthcare, income, etc for BIPOC communities.

Given that the typical amount of cash bail is $10,000, those who are already living in low-income households cannot afford to spend a few days in jail due to the fact that they are at risk of losing housing, jobs, and even custody over their children in some instances. Cash bail can also cause a significant dent to pay off mortgages, thus perpetuating a cycle of debt that many already face when living in a city where the housing prices and the cost of living are significantly higher.

Statistics combined by the Prison Policy Initiative from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, 2002 state that 37% of the people in local jails were unable to pay the amount for cash bail because their average income was lower than the typical amount of cash bail.

As residents of the City of Irvine, many of us are familiar with the price that comes with a high-quality public education system. Irvine is notorious for its significantly high housing prices compared to the rest of our county.

Why is abolishing cash bail instrumental when discussing reform in the CJ system?

An estimated 46,000 innocent people are kept in prisons solely due to the inability to pay for cash bail. When discussing criminal justice reform, the abolition of cash bail should be one of the issues alongside the legalization of Marijuana, policing reform, etc.


  1. https://www.google.com/search?q=kentukcy+average+income+&rlz=1C1ONGR_enUS938US938&sxsrf=ALeKk02Nhh1lDA2QQ_THex5zOjHQnLMvGg%3A1616458784389&ei=IDRZYMKKF4jktQWF9ouYDQ&oq=kentukcy+average+income+&gs_lcp=Cgdnd3Mtd2l6EAMyBAgAEA0yBggAEA0QHjIICAAQDRAFEB4yCAgAEAgQDRAeMggIABAIEA0QHjIICAAQCBANEB4yCAgAEAgQDRAeMggIABAIEA0QHjIICAAQCBANEB4yCAgAEAgQDRAeOgcIABCwAxBDOgcIABBHELADOgUIABDJAzoCCAA6BggAEBYQHjoICCEQFhAdEB46BQghEKABOgcIIRAKEKABOgYIABAHEB46CAgAEAgQBxAeUICEAVi37gFgqfABaAJwAngAgAHHAYgB5h6SAQQwLjI3mAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdpesgBCsABAQ&sclient=gws-wiz&ved=0ahUKEwjCmoydksXvAhUIcq0KHQX7AtMQ4dUDCA0&uact=5

  2. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/incomejails.html

  3. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/homelessness_poverty/race-equity-decriminalization-homelessness/

  4. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2020/03/16/481543/ending-cash-bail/

  5. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-cash-bail-works