Updated: Jul 24
I am a first-generation high school student, a woman of color, and a student activist. I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system and a part of that comes from the story of my parents. While living in Indonesia during the 1980s, my dad worked for a company that worked closely with the government. When asked to take part in corrupt deeds, my dad said no and left the life he knew behind to start a life in America, a place he thought would be just and fair. However, growing up here, I realized that our legal system is just, if not, even more corrupt than that of Indonesia. As a sophomore in high school, I interned for the LA District’s Attorney Office. I learned that the only option for people who committed minor offenses or couldn’t pay bail was to punish them and send them to jail. Now, with everything that's been happening from the global pandemic to police brutality, I have learned that our legal system is unjust and systematically racist. For decades citizens and politicians alike have been advocating for criminal justice reforms and now, during a global pandemic, prisons and jails are finally making the changes that have been long proposed by criminal justice reformers. This leaves me wondering, why did it take a global pandemic for reforms to finally be made? It’s obvious that these reforms are practical and needed in today's world. COVID-19 has highlighted just how necessary criminal justice reform is. These changes have yet to pose any kind of threat to local communities, proving that the steps being taken are towards the betterment of American’s futures. I did some research and observed the criminal justice system and the changes that were made during COVID-19.
Our country leads the world in the highest prison population. Our cash bail system targets minorities, and our justice system focuses on punishing offenders rather than teaching them. Due to COVID-19, many prisons across the United States have adopted a $0 cash bail system for low-level felony offenses and have started to release low-risk offenders and sick or elderly prisoners. However, there will always be those who oppose change. District attorneys, law enforcement officials, bail insurers, and the like, are for cash bail but only because they profit greatly from this corrupt business model. According to my research, the industry brings in about $2 billion a year but much of that money gets lost in bail corporations, global corporations, and more. Not only do we not know where the money goes, cash bail essentially deepens inequalities and targets Black and Latinx communities. Today, there are over 450,000 people behind bars because they cannot afford cash bail. The sad truth is that people of color cannot pay for their freedom whereas the wealthy readily have cash to hand over. Being unable to post bail means that families are separated, individuals lose their jobs, and their lives are disrupted all before they’ve had their day in court. An innocent person has that much more to lose. The reason why Black and Latinx individuals face higher incarceration rates is because their communities are overpoliced and underfunded. Black and Latinx individuals are jailed 10 times more often than whites and are often forced to pay bail well outside their means. It’s obvious that the system targets minorities and their communities. The US spends almost 140 million dollars towards cash bail to detain people pretrial; this money could easily be redirected into infrastructure, education, or building up people of color’s communities. It’s important for us to constantly be analyzing this corrupt billion dollar cash bail system. No one should be put in overcrowded jails solely based on their financial hardships.
Secondly, low-risk, non-violent offenders (those with a technical parole, probation, those who are in jail for bail or warrant violation) have been released from prisons due to the spread of COVID-19. When the Kentucky Governor, Matt Bevin, last year released hundreds of low-risk prisoners, he was met with a lot of backlash from politicians like Senator McCallan who claimed that the release of these prisoners was “arbitrary, callous, and completely inappropriate.” Which prisoners are “low-risk” and “non-violent” has been a conversation our nation hasn’t necessarily been able to have. Nevertheless, COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread amongst jails across the nation and it has become crucial to release low-level, non-violent offenders in order to curb the spread of the virus. When releasing prisoners, it is important to examine the crime committed.
The reality of the American prison system is that it is a place filled with low-risk non-violent offenders, this disrupts the American public’s perception that jails are filled with violent criminal offenders.
American prisons are full of low-level drug offenders like those who are caught in possession of drugs, even if they did not hurt anyone or sell the drugs to another person. Whether first-time or repeat offenders, thousands of street-level dealers selling small quantities, bit-players in the drug trade, or addicts trying to support their habit are sent to jail. However, these people serve several years behind bars with people who commit actual violent crimes. Prison is a resource that should be used sparingly and only to the extent necessary to protect society from dangerous criminals, not the first time, non-violent offenders. By releasing the lower-risk nonviolent offenders who are unlikely to be recommitted, we can keep everyone at prisons safer from contracting and spreading the virus.
Lastly, thousands of immunocompromised prisoners have been released. The sick and elderly have been released because officials have realized that it is more dangerous to keep this vulnerable population in jail since the virus can quickly spread to the guards and the community. Similarly to releasing low risk offenders, people believe their release would pose a danger to the community. However, it is proven that older at-risk prisoners are especially unlikely to commit further crimes once released. A study conducted by the National Corrections Reporting Program shows that rearrest, reconviction, and reincarnation declines as age decreases: “15% of individuals aged 18 to 24 at the time of release had a new-crime reincarceration within three years. This rate declines steadily with age. About 8% of people aged 35 to 44 re-offend within three years. After age 44, the data indicate that new-crime reincarceration risk declines more dramatically, with about 6% of those aged 45 to 54 and only 3% in the 55+ age group reimprisoned within three years.” We should not just release prisoners and make changes to the justice system during COVID-19, there are ways that we can transform and bring lasting reform to the legal system. First, instead of throwing people in jails, police should use citations to address low-risk crimes and misdemeanors. Citations are efficient. They save booking, transporting, and arresting time. Citations protect the rights of the defenders. The use of citations keeps non-violent offenders out of jail and avoids pretrial release, which is based solely on financial ability. citations protect communities, unnecessary arrests disrupt the stability of families and neighborhoods and can even lead to more crime. The citation program eliminates time-consuming and costly involvement in the criminal justice system. Retributive justice is effective in dealing with violent, extreme crimes. However, is it necessary for people who cannot afford bail or low-level offenders to be treated and served the same sentences as those who have murdered, raped, or kidnapped?
Instead, we should focus on providing victim-offender mediation, support, therapy, and academic help. Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime and reducing future harm through crime prevention. Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by criminal behavior through encounters and the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. Arrests are very expensive, in 2017 arresting people alone costs anywhere between $31,000 to $60,000 per year, per inmate. In 2011, an advocacy group, Florida TaxWatch, encouraged civil citation programs throughout the state based on an expected cost savings of between $44 million and $139 million annually for Florida taxpayers. Overall, citations benefit everyone. We need to look at our justice system today. The United States is known to use retributive justice. Retributive justice focuses on punishing the offender to teach. In this approach, crime is viewed as an act against the state and a violation of the law. It emphasizes offender accountability as taking punishment and separates the offender from the community.`
Bail reform is perhaps the most important aspect of the legal system that can and should be changed. The bail system is unjust, broken, and has more than 450,000 Americans sitting in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. Excessive money bail indirectly targets low-income and communities of color. Not only that, the bail system wastes taxpayer money. People awaiting trial account for almost 95% of the growth in the jail population and it costs roughly $14 billion a year to imprison these largely nonviolent defendants. Both parties have worked together in the past to create a bipartisan bill proposing real change in the bail system and end the use of fines and fees systems known as legal financial obligations where individuals are incarcerated based on the inability to pay fines and fees. Eliminate these fees and end the suspension of driver’s licenses as these things make it harder for individuals to reintegrate into society and drive individuals and their families into debt. The bill proposed by the senators will empower states to practice personalized risk assessments that analyze factors such as criminal history and substance abuse; it will determine if a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to the public and ought to be held without bail.
Jails and prisons have become epicenters for the global pandemic today. In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, local officials across the nation are coming together to reduce jail populations by temporarily eliminating cash bail for lower-level offenses, releasing low-risk non-violent offenders, and freeing the elderly and vulnerable inmates. The pandemic is showing how unjust and broken the system is. Jails have always been overcrowded and the sad truth is, most of the people are not supposed to be in there. If we are now able to eliminate cash bail for lower-level offenses and release the non-violent and vulnerable prisoners, why weren’t we able to do so before? As a teenager observing these changes, I wonder what the future will be like for the criminal justice system. I hope this brings awareness to the broken system. Local officials and politicians it is possible and must act now, more than ever, to make serious reforms to the criminal justice system. Why should it take a pandemic to finally propose a real change to the system?