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Criminal justice reform bill passes, bringing new hope to fight against cash bail

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Though they are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, more than 500,000 people are currently locked inside a cage awaiting their trials. Some of them are stuck there for weeks, months, and even years while their cases wind their way through the court system— all because they couldn’t afford bail.

This week, the Senate passed a major criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act. The new legislation will ease sentences for nonviolent offenders and give judges more leeway in mandatory minimum sentences. While the bill doesn’t address bail directly, the fact that criminal justice reform is an issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on means there’s hope for the future.

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, $10,000 is the median amount set for bail. In a country where less than 50 percent of the population has $400 to cover an unexpected expense, that’s a problem that forces many people to sit in a jail cell while awaiting their trials. And in the worst cases, the wait can be years.

"You’re still a human being. Even if you are accused of something and then found guilty, you’re still a human being."
Akeem Browder

For example, in 2010, Kalief Browder was arrested amid accusations of stealing a backpack and spent three traumatic years detained at New York's Rikers Island while awaiting trial, only for the case to be dismissed. But the trauma remained. Browder took his own life after his release.

Circa spoke to his brother, Akeem Browder, last year during his campaign for mayor.

"I’ve seen my brother, Kalief Browder, go through what he went through when it comes to the Department of Corrections and their misjudgment of our black and brown community," Browder said. "You’re still a human being. Even if you are accused of something and then found guilty, you’re still a human being."

3 years at Rikers Island pushed his brother to suicide. Now he's running for mayor to shut it down.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been leading the fight on nationwide bail reform for years.

Earlier this year, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice and the Brooklyn Defender Services released a series called "The Power of Prosecutors." In the episode "Bail," ACLU staff attorney Brandon Buskey says that people held in pretrial detention are more than three times as likely to take a guilty plea than those who are able to afford bail and await trial at home.

The money bail system was originally intended to serve as an incentive for people to return to court, not to keep people incarnated for being unable to afford the price of freedom.

"We now have very good evidence that just the factor of pretrial detention on its own raises the probability that you will be convicted or plead guilty to an offense," Buskey said. "Had the D.A. just took a slightly different approach and said that perhaps the more important thing here is to allow this individual to go through this process without being in jail, may get that person a more honest chance at a better outcome."

The Power of Prosecutors: Bail

Incarceration isn't the only consequence of pretrial detention. It also causes collateral damage when those being detained lose their jobs, are unable to care for their children, and in some cases lose their homes because they're no longer earning an income and able to pay their bills.

The money bail system was originally intended to serve as an incentive for people to return to court, not to keep people incarnated for being unable to afford the price of freedom.

In 2017, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bipartisan bill called the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which is aimed at encouraging states to reform or replace the bail system. The bill hasn’t been called on for a vote yet, but Harris and Paul have suggested that it will be brought to the floor in 2019.

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