Most Americans believe that if you are behind bars somewhere it is because you committed a crime. Kudos to NPR's Laura Sullivan for setting the record straight with her stunning multi-part story on bail and jail in America. Bottom line, thousands of Americans languish in jails accused of petty crimes but unable to meet usurious bond fees set by bondsmen (an ominous if old fashioned term for an industry comparable to the payday loan business) while in aggregate, local and state governments spend 9 billion dollars a year housing people who pose little threat and who have not been convicted by anyone but a police officer thus far. In today's piece, Sullivan's interviews with Shadu Green, a New York City resident arrested for being belligerent to the police, underscore how this invisible system of control processes many new convictions by forcing the arrested to choose between languishing in jail for months, or accepting a guilty plea that may get them out sooner.
While Sullivan emphasized the role of bail bond companies in lobbying local government to keep the current money bail system in place, this all too familiar circuit of enterprises exploiting the poor with the help of government needs to be seen in the context of the broader structure of fear based governing through crime. While bail bond enterprises may well be effective at buying cooperation from judges and county administrators, it is hard to understand why state legislatures, who control the ultimate statutory levers, would choose to leave millions on the table for benefit of local businesses. Like correctional officers and prison construction companies, self interested politics works because of a structure of beliefs about those arrested and processed by our criminal justice system that has become part of what sociologist David Garland would call the "common sense" of high crime societies (in the book, The Culture of Control).
1. Most people arrested by the police are criminals who are guilty of something (whether or not clever defense lawyers are able to get them off on technicalities).
2. The courts routinely let dangerous criminals out almost immediately, rendering the work of police largely futile.
3. While on the streets, these unconvicted criminals return to committing crimes, perhaps a faster clip to earn enough to pay off their defense lawyers.
4. No one in the community is hurt by the absence of these presumptive "predators".
As Sullivan's reporting shows, all of these assumptions are questionable.