2 minute read


Disparity In Bail And Detention: Equal Protection Issues

Criticism of cash-based bail practices have extended beyond questions about the fairness (and substance) of the procedures employed to arrive at a pretrial detention decision to concern regarding the disparate consequences of those practices. Bail reform advocates have argued that the discretionary cash-based system produces unfair results from an equal protection perspective, because similar defendants charged with the same offenses and with the similar backgrounds are often treated differently.

Unfettered judicial discretion in bail proceedings results in outcomes described by critics as random and arbitrary. The likelihood of detention has varied among judges in the same court and across courts, and even by a single judge over time. Studies of bail decisions have found at least as much disparity—unequal treatment of similar individuals—as was found in studies of sentencing and parole that sparked major reforms of those justice decisions (Goldkamp, 1979).

Reform advocates have targeted cash bail as the source of unequal treatment of defendants at bail. They have claimed that the cash-based charge-governed system institutionalizes economic discrimination against the poor. According to this reform perspective, the treatment of defendants has been unequal because some can afford their freedom and some cannot. Critics of such bail practices do not believe a person's ability to afford cash bail, a reflection of economic background, is related to determining the likeli-hood that he or she will fail to attend court. Unfortunately, because of the economic basis of cash-based pretrial release, at least in most urban settings, racial bias is also a result. African Americans and other minorities, who disproportionately are numbered among the poorest of the poor, also disproportionately fill the jails as pretrial detainees.

This economic effect has been accentuated by the role of the bondsman, who selects those persons he would assist on the basis of profit motive. Persons without assets and ties are not viewed as good business risks and are not accepted by bondsmen, who have an economic interest in doing business with only the most reliable of defendants (those with sufficient assets). In addition, persons charged with minor crimes who cannot afford even low amounts of bail are also not accepted by bondsmen because the fees to be earned are too small.

Implicit in the equal protection criticism of American bail practices is the assertion that the two classes of accused produced through cash bail—those released and those detained before trial—are formed by inappropriate, illegitimate, or invidious distinctions (Goldkamp, 1979). Rather than finding that the dividing line between release and confinement is formed on the basis of race and wealth, a rational and fair system would shape release on the basis of factors relating to appearance and public safety. In short, a constitutional analysis of bail practices would require that the factors determining pretrial release be demonstrably and logically, if not empirically, related to the risk of flight and crime.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawBail - The Purposes Of The Bail Or Pretrial Release Decision, The Eighth Amendment Of The Constitution And Defendant Rights