Holidays are a time for family, but sadly in Delaware, there are around 700 families not able to celebrate together because of our broken legal system.

Around 700 mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters weren’t home for Christmas because they simply can’t afford to make bail. These men and women have not been convicted of any crime, and many are in jail for traffic violations or misdemeanors.

With our current system, the wealthy are able to walk away after posting bail. Meanwhile, those who are working multiple jobs, caring for family, or otherwise struggling just to get by find bail is often far too high. This leaves them with very few options, the most common of which is to simply sit in prison until trial. 

The disparities and economic impacts of our current system are far-reaching and deeply affecting our communities.

In Delaware, we don’t have a jail solely for pre-trial detainees. So, anyone waiting to have their day in court goes to prison with the general prison population. Economically speaking, this practice is a disaster.

The average cost of imprisonment in Delaware in 2012, according to the Department of Corrections, was about $90 a day per prisoner. This number does not decrease when the person hasn’t actually been convicted of a crime. In fact, it increases, due to the intake and release procedures that have to be done.

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Given that there are currently around 700 people being detained because they cannot afford bail, this practice costs the state around $63,000 a day! $63,000 to detain people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime, but are too poor to afford bail.

However, the cost of our current system does not end there. The cost of our 25 percent failure-to-appear rate, caused by how we currently rate risk and set bail, is even higher. This includes the cost of rescheduling court dates, issuing warrants, the costs to the community when a person who failed to appear commits another crime. Not to mention the risk to the officer who has to track down a person with a warrant-which is one of the most dangerous jobs an officer has.

The problem isn’t just economical, it’s also a civil rights issue. More than half (56 percent) of those in pre-trial detention are African American —despite African Americans making up only 22 percent of Delaware’s population. Also, African American and Latino detainees spend more than a week longer in prison than white detainees.

Research shows that the longer a person stays in jail, the more likely they are to return to prison in the future. Just two to three days longer in prison increases the chances of recidivism within two years by 17 percent. Moreover, the effects of this faulty bail system are felt by families.

Those living paycheck to paycheck cannot afford even the lowest bail, and a few days in jail could leave dependent loved ones left to fend for themselves. Delaware’s current bail system values money over public safety, individual rights, and fiscal responsibility.

Yet, there is hope. Next year, with the help of a broad coalition of organizations across the state, Delaware has the chance to take a first step in resolving one of the least equitable parts of our criminal justice system. House Bill 204, supported by police authorities, the Attorney General, non-profits and activists alike, looks to change the way we treat people awaiting their day in court.

With the passage of this bill, judges would have a better risk assessment policy that would protect our communities from the most dangerous offenders, while allowing people who are active participants in our society to return to work and their families. It would substantially decrease the amount of money we spend detaining people who cannot afford to make bail, and save taxpayers thousands of dollars a year. Finally, it will help eliminate some of the most egregious racial disparities found in the Delaware legal system.

However, this can only happen with your help. Please make it your New Year’s resolution to help fix our broken criminal justice system by helping us pass HB 204.

Shyanne Miller is co-coordinator of the bail reform committee of the Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow. Dustyn Thompson is outreach director for Delaware United.

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