Above: Rural Texas counties rely heavily on cash bail to determine who should stay in jail.
Three years after a Texas state trooper ripped her out of her car and slammed her to the ground over a traffic violation, Sandra Bland’s name still evokes images of police brutality. Her name also remains on the lips of bail reform activists; her death in a Waller County jail cell, reportedly by suicide, came after she couldn’t scrounge up the $500 that would have secured her release.
Defendants like Bland — stuck in a rural jail because they can’t afford their freedom — are driving the growth of America’s jail population, according to a new report by Right on Crime, the criminal justice offshoot of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Austin.
While the nation’s prison population has dipped in recent years, the number of people sitting in county jails continues to rise, especially in rural areas. According to the report, the population of rural lockups has grown sevenfold over the past four decades, compared to a threefold increase in urban jails.
More troubling is the fact that so-called pretrial detainees — legally innocent people who have been charged but not convicted of a crime — now occupy more beds in jails than any other group. In 1993, about half the nation’s overall jail population consisted of pretrial detainees; today, they represent 66 percent of jail inmates. Pretrial detention is even more lopsided in Texas. According to the report, nearly 74 percent of jail inmates statewide haven’t been convicted of a crime.
What’s behind the rise of pretrial detention, particularly in smaller jurisdictions? One likely factor is counties’ heavy reliance on cash bail to determine who should stay in jail, says Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the foundation and co-author of the Right on Crime report. Only six of Texas’ 254 counties use reliable risk assessment tools to determine whether someone is a flight risk or threat to public safety.
“You get two defendants accused of committing the same crime, yet only one of them gets out because he has money,” Levin told the Observer. “We need to stop that from happening. People shouldn’t be in jail because they’re poor.”
Given the over-incarceration in small jurisdictions, Levin worries rural America could get left behind by the criminal justice reform movement. His report calls on rural criminal justice officials to reduce the number of jailable offenses and offer more diversion and treatment options for substance abuse and mental illness.
Levin also urges rural officials to implement the kind of bail reforms urban counties have adopted. Such measures, including the use of risk-assessment tools, have reduced the number of people fighting their cases from a jail cell — defendants who are much more likely to plead guilty and face longer jail sentences than those who can buy their freedom.
Here’s how Levin has boiled down his pitch: Sky-high pretrial detention rates undermine a bedrock principle of the criminal justice system. “What could be a more conservative concept than innocent until proven guilty?” he asked.