How Many People Are Waiting in Jail for Their Day in Court?

In the United States, we have agreed that people should not be held in jail because they cannot afford their bail. This leads to greater inequality, where the people who can pay are released, while the disadvantaged stay incarcerated, despite being a low-risk to the community. As a nation, we stand against a “debtors’ prison”, at least in language.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart recently said that “on any given day, we have probably 2-300 people that if they came up with $500, they would leave [the jail]” (CBS News).

This prompts the question, how many people are waiting in jail for their “day in court”?

There are a variety of people held in our criminal justice system. In both prisons and jails, from convicted felons (generally, you can think of those as those who were sentenced for over a year) to people who have been arrested, but haven’t even “seen their day in court.” The latter is what is called pretrial detention. This means that people are detained prior to trial, instead of giving them bail or some other alternative (Prison Policy Initiative).

Source: Elydah Joyce, Prison Policy Initiative, 2016

Research has shown that 6 in 10 of those held in jails are awaiting trial and the largest driver of jail population growth is a significant increase in the use of pretrial detention.

Source: Pretrial Justice Institute

Source: Data compiled from multiple Bureau of Justice Statistics data sets by Prison Policy Initiative, Graph: Joshua Aiken, 2017)

Bail allows people to leave jail while awaiting trial. It is granted by a judge and is given to those who are determined to be a low-risk to society. In the United States, we usually use financial bonds, where the judge rules that the person pay a certain amount of money in order to assure that they will be at their court date. There is a lot happening surrounding bail right now, so I will definitely follow-up with more.

About Dr. Andrea Krieg

This blog was written when Dr. Krieg was serving as Assistant Professor of Justice, Law and Public Safety Studies at Lewis University in Illinois.

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