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Cash Bail: Necessary Part Of Criminal Justice Or Debtors Prison?

There has been increased national scrutiny of the cash bail system, which critics say creates a debtor’s prison for those who can’t afford to fork over money to a bail-bondsman.  Now that debate has erupted in Virginia.

Spend any amount of time with Dave Gambale, the leading bail bondsman of Fairfax County, and you’ll hear his phone blowing up nonstop with people trying to get out of jail: text messages, calls, alerts and even the occasional sports score.

He dismisses criticism that his industry takes advantage of poor people and minorities. “If they call us up to bail them out of jail, we put up the money for them to get out of jail. So how is that taking advantage of them” Gambale asks.

Critics of cash bail say the system is set up as a sort of debtor’s prison, one where African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to spend time in jail because they can’t pay. In Virginia, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 90 percent of defendants who are detained are unable to post bonds of $5,000 or less.

“As a result a number of big cities, like Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore and New York have started the movement to abolish cash bail," says William Pelfrey, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. "And jurisdictions like Richmond are following suit.”

“When jurisdictions abolish or move to abolish or at least limit cash bail, you see your whole industry go up in smoke. So there’s going to be a powerful and well funded movement to fight this,” Pelfrey says.

Bail bondsmen say they perform an important service -- making sure that defendants show up to court. “If you break the law, you need to go to court and be accountable for it. And if they choose not to be accountable there’s nobody to force them to be accountable. That’s where we come in,” argues Vernon King, a bail bondsman in Henrico and Stafford counties.

“If the guy flees the state, the cops can’t go get him. The commonwealth’s attorney can extradite depending on the charge. But it’s not as simple as they’re making it,” King says.

Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey agrees that cash bail has its flaws. But, he adds, what’s the alternative? Pretrial release has its own set of problems. “A lot of times people who are in poverty find themselves up against a bail that they cannot meet, which puts them in jail," Kelsey says. "But, of course, the flip side of this and I think it’s something that people sometimes forget the old law of unintended consequences: When you release people without cash bail you set up a series of conditions that also impose costs on them.”

Like showing up for a meeting in the middle of the day or paying for classes as part of pretrial release. Loretta Carr was forced to pay for classes she says she couldn’t afford in Culpeper County as part of a pretrial release program.  She says that landed her in jail to serve time before she was even able to face charges on the original crime. “In my case, it hurt me. I lost my kids to Social Services, which someone else had to remand custody of my kids and everything else. To this day I don’t have custody of my kids because of it. I lost my home, my job, everything,” Carr remembers.

We don't want to continue to have second-class citizens in the United States....

Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat from Woodbridge, says that’s a separate issue. She’s more focussed on the disparity of the cash bail system. “We don’t want to continue to have second-class citizens in the United States, and say people who are wealthy you can afford your freedom so you can walk out of jail and the people who are poor, you do not and you get to sit here on the taxpayers dime until your court date,” Foy argues

Foy and other members of the Prince William County delegation are calling on the prosecutor there to follow Richmond’s lead and abolish the cash bond system there. In a statement, the commonwealth’s attorney says the current system works just fine.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
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