Sheriff's deputies inspect a cellblock at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail. Michael Garcia was transferred there from juvenile hall after he turned 18 and did not receive special education services for 19 months.

In 2014, more than 11 million people spent time in a local jail in the U.S., most not convicted of any crimes. They awaited hearings, pleas or trials, mostly unable to fork over the bail money needed to get out and go home.

Within the criminal justice system, bail functions as a security deposit. It allows a defendant to leave the confines of a jail with the promise to return or forfeit the money.

Proponents say bail helps protect public safety by keeping criminals behind bars. But two new studies say eliminating the system in some cases could reduce crime and save counties millions of dollars in jail supervision costs.

According to researchers at the Quattrone Center for Fair Administration of Justice, defendants who can’t make bail are more likely to be convicted and less likely to receive favorable plea deals. And those detained before trial committed more crimes after their release than similar defendants who paid bail and left.

Researchers focused the two studies on misdemeanor defendants in Harris County, Texas – the third-largest county in the United States –and on pretrial defendants who received bail hearings in Philadelphia. In Harris County, researchers said about 50 percent of misdemeanor defendants did not make bail. In Philadelphia, that number was around 25 percent.

The researchers found defendants who couldn’t afford bail were more likely to plead guilty and receive sentences more than double the length of those received by defendants who paid bail.

“A lot of people don’t think about or don’t realize some of the collateral consequences of pleading guilty in terms of the effect it has on your criminal record, the ability to find jobs, to get into schools, to get a variety of public benefits,” said head researcher Megan Stevenson in an interview with The Atlantic. “Even with very, very low amounts of bail you’re detaining a lot of people that don’t really need to be detained. These people are poor people, and because they’re detained, they’re more likely to be convicted, they’re more likely to plead guilty.”

The researchers also found the bail system had a negative impact on public safety. Those stuck in jail committed, on average, 22 percent more misdemeanors and 33 percent more felonies than defendants released within 18 months of their bail hearings.

The researchers recommended counties simply release certain defendants on their own, instead of requiring them to pay cash bail for nonviolent, low-level offenses. For example, the authors wrote, if Harris County had ceased using cash bail for defendants whose bonds were set at $500, the county would have reduced incarceration, saved $20 million in jail costs and reduced crime in the county by 1,600 felonies and 2,400 misdemeanors. There would also be less incentive to plead guilty, perhaps leading to fewer wrongful convictions, the authors wrote. Read the two studies here.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.