"I have to get out tonight," he told me. "If I don't get out, I'll lose my bed at the shelter. They'll throw out my stuff. I'll have nowhere to go." Charles, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy, spoke quickly and nervously.
An African American man in his late forties, Charles was being charged with criminal possession of drugs. I read him the police complaint laying out the allegations and asked him to tell me what happened. Charles said someone at the homeless shelter had called the police and told them he had crack. The police showed up and searched the room he was staying in, which Charles shared with several men. After finding drugs on the floor several feet away from him, they placed him under arrest.
At the time, Charles was in an opioid addiction treatment program at a local hospital and had been receiving methadone treatment for more than a month. He adamantly denied having drugs, saying he was being tested every day.
I took another look at Charles's rap sheet, a log of his past arrests. He had multiple convictions, including some felonies. There were numerous arrests for drug possession. But the record showed it had been two years since his last arrest--an impressive feat for a homeless man in New York City. Charles also had no probation violations, which meant he reported regularly to his probation officer.
Like most defendants, Charles was offered a plea bargain: plead guilty to drug possession and be sentenced to just thirty days in jail. That would mean losing his place at the shelter and, because he was on probation, perhaps receiving additional time in an upstate prison.
Charles, insisting the drugs were not his, refused the deal. So the assistant district attorney assigned to the case asked that bail be set at $500, an amount well beyond his means. And that meant Charles, like many other poor, black defendants, was going to stay in jail while his case proceeded.
Bail is one of the American criminal justice system's greatest failings. Nationally, more than 60 percent of people in jail between 2005 and 2015 were awaiting court action on a current charge rather than serving time for a conviction, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Three-fourths of these individuals were accused of nonviolent crimes involving property or drugs. They sit in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years.
Bail forces innocent people to sit in jail--a punishment normally reserved for those who have been convicted of a crime.
Kalief Browder, an African American man who was arrested in 2010 at age sixteen for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years at New York's notorious Rikers Island without a trial, including more than two years in solitary confinement, before the charges against him were dismissed. After professing in interviews that the experience left him "messed up," Browder hung himself to death in 2015.
Prior to the Trump presidency, stories like Browder's...