The High Cost of Cash Bail

“It’s modern-day bondage. Our folks are being held hostage for ransom.”

Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), is referring to the U.S. cash bail system—a corrupt, for-profit complex that exploits and exasperates poverty and racial- and gender-based inequality. Organizations like SONG—an Atlanta, Georgia-based LGBTQ and social-justice advocacy organization that helps bail Black women, queer and transgender folks out of jail—are mounting a strong resistance.


Recently, in the midst of Black August Bail Out, a national push to eradicate cash bail, SONG raised money to release nine women from Durham County jail in North Carolina. The women—a majority of whom are mothers or caregivers—were detained for charges that ranged from minor misdemeanors to felonies. The youngest was 17 years old at the time; in North Carolina, girls as young as 16 can be charged as adults. Her initial bail, set at $10,000, was eventually lowered to $5,000 with the help of a lawyer.

North Carolina’s cash bail system is one of the most egregious in the country. While the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice and the National Center for State Courts with the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) define bail as “a process of conditional pretrial release,” all but one county jail in North Carolina turn financial means into a de facto determinant of who is entitled to freedom and who isn’t. Women of color—who make up the majority of low income women and are subjected to racial profiling—are adversely and disproportionately impacted by cash bail, and the scope of this attack has made them the fastest-growing incarcerated community in the nation.

According to the Department of Justice’s most recently available data, in 2014 there were roughly 109,000 women—of which more than 88 percent, or nearly 97,000, were Black—in American jails. In 2005, almost 80 percent of all incarcerated women had young children, and the majority were single parents; that number is rising rapidly given the amplification of “broken windows” policing, a tactic introduced in the 1990’s and recently revived by President Trump that puts women behind bars for committing minor, non-violent transgressions.

The economic cost of incarcerating women for any amount of time is astronomical, and can be directly tied to a swath of social issues. Spending time in jail, even if it is for only a handful of days, can easily jeopardize a woman’s future, especially if she is a mother. It’s a frighteningly slippery slope—one that often begins with unemployment, which could then lead to a women losing her housing and in some cases even losing her children. Due to systemic racial and gender inequity, raising money for bail is significantly more difficult for low-income women of color, which in turn increases their time spent in jail pending trial—out of work, out of school and away from their families.

But a movement to revise the bail systems is spreading across the U.S. like wildfire, and women are carrying the torches. Attorney Kim Foxx from Chicago recently announced a policy that would recommend release for the majority of misdemeanor defendants. “For too long, prosecutors have abdicated our responsibility by not participating in this process,” Foxx explained. And on the federal level, Kamala Harris is working on legislation designed to create competitive grants that would incentivize states to devise pilot reforms of their cash bail systems.

With the application of pressure on multiple levels of governance, hope is on the horizon. And what gives this movement additional momentum is that way in which it challenges the system and offers alternatives on numerous fronts. In addition to bailing women out of jail, SONG is simultaneously working to completely revise the system. The county jails “earn state revenue off the backs of poor people,” Jade Brooks, the Regional Organizer at SONG, told Ms. “We’re trying to figure out if we can demand an end to cash bail all together, but we for sure know that revision is feasible.”

North Carolina has a few district attorneys who acknowledge their state’s institutionalized mistreatment of low-income women and women of color. Durham County D.A. Roger Echols wrote in a candidate questionnaire that when it comes to both crime and incarceration, “there is no greater contributing factor than poverty.” Wake County D.A. Lorrin Freeman said in an interview in 2014 that “all residents of Wake County should be treated the same under the law.” Others have spoken more broadly about the public need and desire for equality in the justice system—a platform that bail reformists could pick up and run with.

It has been revealed time and again that for-profit bail systems like the one in Durham County don’t improve public safety, nor do they make it more likely that defendants will show up in court. It’s time to upend cash bash, once and for all, and replace it with mechanisms that provide a path toward freedom.



Jessica Merino is a former Ms. editorial intern.