George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, has been granted bail at the price of one million dollars. The amount is very large for someone facing a non-capital, non-life sentence crime that they’re likely to be acquitted on. It was much lower, but Zimmerman was stupid enough to lie about his income and assets, so, yeah.
Bail is a very important part of our judicial system, and it’s one that in our zeal to punish people no matter what, we tend to not treat with the respect it deserves. Being released on bail allows people, who are, you must always remember, legally innocent until convicted, to get on with their lives, continue to earn a living and basically carry on while awaiting trial. It’s something that is so important, it’s part of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Bail as a system works great if you’ve got money. You can pay and be out the door within an hour or two. But if you’re poor, it amounts to you being held in jail, maybe for a year or more, while awaiting trial. During this time you are treated like a criminal despite the fact that you’ve not been convicted of anything. If you’re actually innocent, I can only imagine how hellish this must be. Also during this time, you’re a drain on the state’s assets, rather than someone who is out earning your way, paying taxes, maybe taking care of your family, etc.
Our system of bail needs to be reformed. It’s inexcusable to hold someone for months or years at a time simply because they’re too poor to afford bail. Here’s how I would fix things.
1. Eliminate any bail requirements for any non-violent offenses. For these, personal recognize is enough. If someone fails to appear in court or whatever, sure, round them up and jail them; they had their chance. But otherwise, let them be out there taking care of their lives. In the most extreme non-violent cases, mandate some sort of check-in system and require monitoring.
2. Restructure the bail system so that no one is charged more than they can afford. Yes, even if they are charged with a violent crime. The way you do this is by charging enough to make them feel it. Don’t charge a flat rate. Charge someone, say, 10 – 25% of their previous years’ income and/or their assets. This assures that the rich will feel the sting just like the poor, even if it isn’t as severe.
3. If, for whatever reason, someone being held prior to trial is unable to be bailed out, then stop treating them like criminals, since under the legal system, they aren’t. Hold them in their own part of the jail. Give them access to as much entertainment as you can. Give them access to quality food. Give them plenty of visitor time. Remember that under the law, they aren’t guilty.
I know that most of these reforms are unlikely, but I remain hopeful that at some point, someone might implement them.