What bail costs us all

In her second of a three-part series, contributor Brenda McWilliams dives into incarceration disparities and their far-reaching, longterm impacts.

My recent deep dive into the Smith County Jail system left me better informed yet mulling over more complex issues. Last week, I opened my latest exploration of bail with a brief history. This week, I will dive into the costs of bail — both direct and indirect, ultimately with an eye on how these factors take a toll in Smith County.

Economic and racial disparity

Data from the Bureau of Justice indicates that incarcerated persons, both men and women, have lower incomes prior to their incarceration than non incarcerated individuals. Our jails and prisons are filled with those hampered economically by a lack of quality education or access to good jobs. In 2015 dollars, the median annual income of incarcerated individuals prior to incarceration was 48% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.

Income comparison: Prior to incarceration vs. non-incarcerated

The Vera Institute of Justice has compiled data on incarceration trends in Texas, illustrated in the chart below, showing the disproportionate percentage of Black and Hispanic people in our jails as compared to the state population. 

Income data for those incarcerated at Smith County Jail is not available, and efforts to secure race and ethnicity data for the Smith County Jail population have been unsuccessful. Until that data becomes available, we can surmise that Smith County’s jail population follows national and state trends.

Race and ethnicity in Texas jails

Correlating the information from the above graph and the previous income table, the poorest incarcerated individuals are Black and/or Hispanic, and these two groups also represent 55% of the jail population. This is, understandably, a formula for inability to afford bail and longer pretrial detentions.

Ability to afford bail is the most critical factor in release versus being locked up. A study conducted in Wichita County by the Texas A&M Public Policy Research Institute showed that being poor decreases an individual’s chance of bonding out by 16%. The primary determinant in whether one bonds out of jail is ability to pay and not the seriousness of the prevailing charges or criminal history. 

In addition to the racial and ethnic disparity in our jail population, we have the added  consequence that the poor, who can least afford the bail and have the greatest need to be out on bail working, remain in pretrial detention awaiting disposition of their case..

Jail overcrowding and greater cost to taxpayers

High and/or unaffordable bail amounts culminate in overcrowding in our jails, as an increasing number of individuals languish in jail prior to any conviction of a crime. Sixty-one percent of Texas county jail inmates are held pre-trial. A recent look at Smith County data as of January 1, 2021, showed  61.2% or 688 of 1125 inmates were pretrial. If we take 50, the monthly average number of Smith County pretrial misdemeanor inmates for 2020, and multiply that by the average daily cost of incarceration for one inmate ($69 according to Sheriff Larry Smith), Smith County taxpayers are spending $3,450 a day, $103,500 a month and $1,242,000 a year housing presumed innocent individuals charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses. Additionally, pretrial detention costs local economies and communities indirectly in that lost wages and less spendable income impacts overall economic growth and tax revenue.

Pretrial detention impacts court outcomes

Compared to otherwise identical defendants, those held in pretrial detention are four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and three times more likely to be sentenced to prison, according to information compiled by Texas Appleseed, a non-profit public interest justice center. Their data also reveals that pretrial detainees receive two to three times longer sentences than individuals who were able to post bonds. Defendants who are bonded out pretrial have a 30% better chance of having all charges dismissed and a 24% less chance of being found guilty if their case goes to trial. 

Pretrial detention impacts recidivism and public safety

 Various studies have shown a correlation between length of pretrial detention and new criminal activity (NCA) prior to trial and longer-term recidivism for low-risk defendants. A pretrial detention of two to three days increased the likelihood of NCA prior to trial by 40% over that of a 24-hour detention. Low-risk defendants held in pretrial detention longer than a month are 74% more likely to commit NCA before trial.  

With regard to long-term recidivism relative to a 24-hour detention, a defendant held two to three days pretrial was 17% more likely to commit NCA within two years. Defendants detained one to two weeks pretrial were 51% more likely. Consequently, public safety is at a greater risk with the increased likelihood that low-risk defendants detained pretrial will commit new criminal activity in both the short term and the long term. This raises the question: As the Smith County Jail population contains a high percentage of pretrial detainees, and Sheriff Smith and others cite repeat offenders as a problem, could it be that our system is actually an incubator for repeat offenders?

Pretrial detention costs to families, economic stability and communities

Individuals who are detained pretrial for even a short time are at increased risk of losing jobs, housing, property, access to government benefits and/or custody of their children. Detention often results in an 11% reduction in hourly wages and a 40% decrease in annual earnings when or if the detainee finds another job. Twenty-three percent of detainees lose rental housing resulting in further expense in finding and securing other housing. Pretrial detention also results in less quantifiable costs such as standing in the community and disruption to family life and relationships, particularly evidenced in the loss of financial and emotional support for children. This often leads to long-term behavior and emotional consequences for the children.

With pretrial detentions — many linked to high or unaffordable bail — contributing to such costly, harmful and discriminatory consequences — the current clamor for bail reform is understandable. The recent case of Robert Polodna is evidence of such consequences.

In my next and final story in this series, a few of our county officials will share their thoughts concerning bail and bail reform.

Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.

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