Debtors’ prisons were abolished by Congress more than 180 years ago, but in Indiana, the practice of criminalizing poverty is still alive and well. Every day, tens of thousands of people who have been charged with—but not yet convicted of—a crime are languishing behind bars because they are too poor to pay bail. The money bail system has effectively created a two tiered system of justice: bail for the rich and jail for the poor.
The enduring use of money bail fuels mass incarceration, erodes public safety and does irreparable harm to poor communities. Our current system is particularly devastating for our state’s minority communities. It is fundamentally unjust to make a person’s liberty contingent on the amount of money in their pocket. We need to reform our pre-trial system, which is why I introduced Senate Bill (SB) 303. This proposal would allow Hoosiers charged with non-violent misdemeanors to be released on their own recognizance, without any bail.
Unnecessary pretrial detention is also a strain on our local budgets. Indiana has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in jail growth. In 2019, at least 66 percent of the state’s jails were overcrowded. Of the 21,000 people in jail on an average day, 56 percent had not yet gone to trial. This system takes a terrible toll on human lives; Hoosiers who are too poor to pay their bail become entangled more deeply and more permanently in the criminal justice system. Does it make sense for people to be held in jail on a non-violent charge, when they are likely to lose their jobs, their homes or even custody of their children?
In recognition of these problems, Indiana is now poised for statewide implementation of Criminal Rule 26, which will institute a “risk assessment tool” intended to help judges understand a person’s risk of flight or potential danger to public safety. This is a great step, but will not be an instant fix. Two proposals this legislative session can make this go faster. Rep. Cherrish Pryor’s bill, House Bill 1076, would allow a police officer to simply give a citation advising the person when to appear in court, without taking them to jail for booking. My own bill, SB 303, would have allowed a person, when booked, to be released without bail for most non-violent crimes. These two measures, taken together, can get this prejudiced jail overcrowding problem under control now.