On January 12, 2017, the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI)published a money bail study that revealed it is costing American taxpayers roughly $38 million a day, or nearly 14 billion a year, to keep approximately 450,000 low risk, pretrial detainees housed in the nation’s jail system on any given day because they do not have the money needed to post bail.


Low Risk Defendants Detained Because Cannot Afford Bail


PJI reports that the average costs to provide food, medical care and security for each pretrial detainees conservatively costs taxpayers $85 a day. The 450,000 pretrial detainees cited by PJI represent 63 percent of the nation’s jail population on any given day. They are the “low risk” people who could safely be released back into the community pending final disposition of their cases.


Just how bad in this cost problem for taxpayers?


New York’s Rikers Island Cost More than Princeton University


Let’s take New York City’s Rikers Island detention center, for example. It costs $450 a day to house one person in that infamous facility, totally out to be $167,000 a year. PJI reports that equals the cost of four years of tuition at Princeton University.


The money bail scheme is not as costly to Harris County taxpayers but they nonetheless pay significant costs for the county’s harsh and unyielding bail system.


Financial Conditions of Bail Lead to Wrongful Pleas and Higher Recidivism Rates


PJI cited two recent studies that found that if all Harris County misdemeanor defendants between 2008 and 2013 assigned a $500 bond had been released without “financial conditions,” there would have been:


  • 40,000 more people released pretrial;
  • 5,900 avoided criminal prosecutions (mainly from a drop in wrongful guilty pleas)
  • 400,000 fewer jail bed-days used;
  • 1,600 few felonies and 2,400 fewer misdemeanors committed by people within 18 months of their release; and
  • $20 million saved in supervision costs.


There are three universally recognized purposes of bail:


  • Maximize public safety
  • Maximize court appearance, and
  • Maximize pretrial liberty


As we have pointed out in the past, bail in Texas should not be an “instrument of oppression.” Texas law recognizes seven basic factors that should be considered in bail determinations. They are:


  1. The accused’s work record;
  2. The accused’s family and community ties;
  3. The accused’s length of residency;
  4. The accused’s prior criminal record;
  5. The accused’s conformity with previous bail conditions;
  6. The existence of other outstanding bail, if any; and
  7. Aggravating circumstances alleged to have been involved in the charged offense.


Harris County DA, Kim Ogg, Agrees to Personal Bonds for Low Risk Defendants


Newly-elected Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has promised criminal justice reforms, including changes In the county’s bail system. She pledged to instruct her prosecutors to agree to personal bonds in cases in which the defendants do not pose a risk to public safety. As the PJI study indicated, this is about 65 percent of all people arrested in this country, including Harris County. Change cannot come too soon to the county’s “for-profit” bail scheme, which is currently being challenged in the local federal court as unconstitutionally depriving low income defendants of release prior to conviction.


Money-Based Bail Costs Tax Payers Billions


Beyond the pretrial detention costs, the PJI study found there are collateral costs to the local criminal justice systems; specifically, an estimated $10 in collateral costs to every $1 in pretrial detention costs. As the study concluded: “This suggests that the true cost of existing money-based pretrial systems is closer to $140 billion per year.”


The CEO of PJI, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, told the Huffington Post that, “we wanted to give people the big-picture numbers to help them understand what your local costs are, both direct and indirect.”


It is past time for Harris County to end its “for-profit” bail scheme. As many as 75 or 80 percent of the people in the Harris County Jail could be released without posing any public safety risks to the community. They are in jail because those with vested interests in the for-profit scheme are willing to keep them there.  We applaud Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and her immediate efforts to address this injustice in the Harris County criminal justice system.