Presumed Guilty: The Immorality of Our Current Pretrial Justice System

Three months. That is how long it took for my brother to get out of jail. It was the summer of 2012 when my baby brother was arrested and charged with theft of a company vehicle. From the very beginning, he insisted on his innocence and looked forward to the opportunity to present his case at trial before a jury of his peers. Instead, as is the pattern in far too many cases involving poor people of color, he was incarcerated and began serving time in jail without ever having his day in court.

So what was the cause of his three month incarceration? In a word: money, of which he had none. For thousands of families across the country the cost of posting bail means losing one’s home or job because rent money or childcare expenditures that month went to getting a loved one out of jail. Eventually, my family scraped together the money to pay the bail bondsman. However, my brother’s fortunate outcome is not the case for many who find themselves behind bars like he did.

I wish that I could say that my brother’s situation was a fluke, or some rare mishap in an otherwise healthy system of criminal justice but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Sadly, what happened to my mother’s baby boy is exactly what happens in jurisdictions throughout America every single day. Every year across the United States, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are detained in jails for weeks, months and in some cases, even years without ever having a trial, due to the simple fact that they do not have the money to post bond. These are mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. They are also employees and caregivers, people who others rely on for emotional, financial, and other support. For the children of incarcerated individuals, emotional scarring can occur as their sense of love and security is challenged or destroyed by a parent’s absence.

Racial profiling, the threat of lengthy sentences, and the decisions of pretrial judges overwhelmingly disadvantage poor people of color. When the accused cannot post bond, they often accept “plea deals” that allow them to get out of jail in the short term, while it saddles them with a criminal record that stays with them for a lifetime. The “easy out” of a plea deal effects everything from their job prospects to their right to vote. In the face of this reality I again ask: “Does our current pretrial system reflect the ethics and values upon which our legal system of justice is supposedly based?”

And again, for people of faith and goodwill, the answer is no. Those who present no threat to public safety, and have been convicted of no crime, should be given an opportunity to stay in their communities and with their families after arrest. The idea that our brothers and sisters have to spend days, weeks, and months in jail without a trial, simply because they are poor is a shock to those who believe justice and fairness are basic guiding principles of humanity.

At the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society we believe in restorative justice principles that seek to correct harm by healing those impacted by crime, including victims, communities, families and the person accused of a crime. Incarceration doesn’t have to be part of the equation. We put our beliefs into practice through the Healing Communities framework which is helping churches learn to be in relationship and ministry with those who are directly impacted by mass incarceration, including the pretrial justice system. Part of this work can include walking with those in our families, churches, and communities who are experiencing the challenge of the money bail system. While this can mean addressing the immediate need to raise bail money, it also leads to advocacy to eliminate money bail entirely in accordance with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.

Does our current pretrial system reflect the ethics and values upon which our legal system of justice is supposedly based? For people of faith and goodwill, the answer is no. For me, personally, the story of my brother’s arrest provided a clear example of how current pretrial practices fail to support our legal and spiritual values.

As believers in justice and equality we are eager to partner with those who share our values.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE . . . . FOR LIFE ! ! ! ! !