Issues / Addressing the Poverty Penalty and Bail Reform

Common sense dictates that people should not be held in jail or penalized simply because they cannot afford a monetary payment. But in many ways, we have a two-tiered system of justice that imposes a “poverty penalty” on individuals who are financially strapped.

The money bail system is intended to ensure that defendants come to court, yet it often means that wealthier defendants get released while poor defendants have to stay in jail. Similarly, fines and fees intended to discourage wrongdoing can push low-income people into debt and, sometimes, imprisonment. These penalties and practices disrupt employment, family relationships and lives, thereby contributing to cycles of recidivism and reducing public safety long-term. The choices that prosecutors make in charging decisions, bail recommendations, and plea bargaining can directly influence these wealth-based inequities.

Information and Resources

FJP Brief on Fines, Fees and the Poverty Penalty

NOV. 2017 – Fines and fees can impose immense burdens on justice-involved individuals, their families, and the governments tasked with collecting them. Instead of advancing public safety and increasing revenue, these charges can increase the likelihood of re-arrest and cost jurisdictions far more than the revenue they bring in. This FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief discusses how fines and fees — and other assessments that disparately impact those in low-income brackets — can harm individuals and their communities and provides concrete recommendations and strategies for prosecutors to address this “poverty penalty” through new policies and practices and legal reform.

FJP Bail Reform Brief

SEPT. 2017 – Local prosecutors can help make communities safer and the justice system fairer by supporting the elimination of a money bail system, which penalizes defendants who cannot afford to post bond. Prosecutors should, instead, support a presumption of release where individuals present no risk of flight or danger to the community. This FJP “Issues at a Glance” brief discusses the prosecutor’s role in reforming the money bail system to reduce pretrial incarceration and its potentially counterproductive effect on public safety and recidivism.

Elected Prosecutors File Amicus Brief Urging Appellate Court to Affirm Right to Counsel in Bail Hearings

FEB. 14, 2020 – Legal representation is a fundamental right afforded to every person who must go before a court of law to defend against criminal charges. Yet, in Galveston TX, people every day are denied the right to counsel at one of the most critical stages in the criminal process: the initial bail hearing that determines whether an individual is detained or set free prior to trial. That’s why 44 current and former local elected prosecutors and state attorneys general from across the country filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in support of a defendant’s right to counsel at these hearings. They argue that legal representation at critical stages in the justice process is essential to ensuring fairness. Further, they argue that failure to provide an attorney can result in uninformed decision making and serves to erode public trust in the integrity of the criminal justice process, which ultimately harms public safety. For more, read the press release and brief.

“Failure to provide legal counsel at such a critical stage, erodes the public perception that the bail process is fair. And when people remain locked behind bars simply because they don’t have the means to pay for their freedom, trust in the legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system is undermined, resulting in reduced cooperation with law enforcement and prosecutors, and ultimately, harm to public safety.”
– Ingham County, MI Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon

California Supreme Court Amicus Brief Calling for an End to Cash Bail

OCT. 9, 2018 – Over 50 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement leaders joined an amicus brief in support of an indigent defendant’s challenge to the constitutionality of California’s money bail system. Amici—which include 26 currently sitting elected prosecutors—argue that money bail systems are not only unconstitutional, but also erode public trust in the justice system, waste taxpayer resources, and lead to tremendous damage to individuals detained based simply on an inability to pay their bail. This position aligns with that advanced by both petitioner, San Francisco DA George Gascon, and the respondent in the case. Read the press release and full brief.

“The Constitution has long stood for the principle that people who would otherwise be eligible for release cannot be incarcerated simply because they are poor.”
– In Re Humphrey Prosecutor and Law Enforcement Amicus Brief

Amicus Brief on the Need for Bail Reform

AUG. 9, 2017 – Nearly 70 current and former elected prosecutors — including 16 current elected DAs and AGs and officials from over 30 states — filed a brief supporting litigation challenging cash bail practices in Harris County, Texas. The brief argues that detaining poor misdemeanor defendants pending trial, solely due to an inability to post bail, erodes community trust and does not further public safety. Read the press release here and the brief here.

Speaking Out

Los Angeles cities are wrong to oppose bail reforms that make us safer

JAN. 30, 2024 In 2023, L.A. County implemented a new bail policy that enables judges to decide whether an individual should be detained pretrial based on their risk to the community rather than their ability to post bail. Within days of the policy taking effect, a group of small cities sued the county in an effort to return to the failed status quo. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Daily News, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky explains why leaders across L.A. must embrace this long-overdue change to promote public safety and community well-being.

“[A] system that suggests people without money are inherently dangerous is a system in which prosecutors cannot live up to their mandate to do justice.”

FJP Statement on Long Overdue Cash Bail Reforms in Los Angeles County

OCT. 20, 2023 Fair and Just Prosecution Executive Director Miriam Krinsky issued this statement in response to the Los Angeles Superior Court’s implementation of a new bail system known as Pre-Arraignment Release Protocols (PARP), which will promote equity, fairness, and public safety.

“We commend the leaders in Los Angeles who are working towards a more fair and equitable criminal legal system, and we hope all members of our community will put people above politics and work together to craft proven solutions that promote safer and healthier communities.”

Ending cash-based jailing: a win for the constitution and public safety

MAY 19, 2023 – The Los Angeles Superior Court issued an order to end enforcement of LA’s bail schedule, a system which assigns a price to release from jail based solely on arrest charges without any regard for individualized factors including the strength of evidence, flight risk, or a person’s financial status. In an op-ed in the Daily Journal, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and retired California Courts of Appeal Senior Justice Anthony Kline explain why this decision is a victory for the people of LA and long-term public safety.

“As a former federal prosecutor, a constitutional law scholar and a former judge, we believe the Court made the right decision. The preliminary injunction order is sound, it protects public safety, and, most important, it vindicates constitutional rights that have long been ignored in Los Angeles.”

Los Angeles’ bail schedule is unconstitutional and a threat to public safety

MARCH 12, 2023 – The Los Angeles County Superior Court has before it a case testing the constitutionality of LA’s bail schedule, which assigns a price to freedom based only on arrest charges – without accounting for the strength (or lack) of evidence, the likelihood of a person returning to court, or other individualized factors. In a Los Angeles Daily News op-ed, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and retired California Courts of Appeal Senior Justice Anthony Kline explain how the current flawed bail system harms community members and undermines public safety and why LA city and county leaders should act today to end it.

“Los Angeles officials can act today to end this exploitative bail system; if they don’t, the courts must do so. The Constitution demands it. Public safety benefits from it. And our community deserves it.”

“Eliminate Court Fines and Fees That Penalize Poverty”

JAN. 4, 2019 – For many individuals, fines and fees are a weighty burden that can lead to perpetual cycles of debt and incarceration. In a USA Today op-ed, Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Director Lisa Foster and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky recount the escalating number and amount of fines and fees in state justice systems over recent years and the perverse incentives that result when jurisdictions use this tax on justice to raise revenue. They encourage elected prosecutors to be advocates for reform and delineate concrete steps DAs can take – including supporting alternative mechanisms to fund courts, advocating for assessing fines and fees on a sliding scale, and eliminating fines and fees for young people.

“California Killed Cash Bail. Now It’s Up To Judges To Determine a Fair Replacement.”

SEPT. 25, 2018 – In a Sacramento Bee op-ed about California’s recent elimination of cash bail, FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris H. Cordell discuss uncertainties in the law and urge judicial leaders charged with implementation to develop safeguards that will guard against replicating the harms of cash bail.

“To avoid replacing one unjust [bail] system with another, the California judiciary must dedicate itself to presiding over a system that is fair and equal, and that dramatically reduces the population in county jails.”
– Former Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris H. Cordell and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky

“Bail Reform: Explained”

JUNE 14, 2018 – Read this in-depth analysis from In Justice Today describing the role of bail in the criminal justice system and the ability of prosecutors to reduce reliance on cash bail.

“While judges are the ultimate gatekeepers, prosecutors play an important role in the process and can advocate for bail reform, screen cases early and establish a presumption of recommending release.”

“Jailed for Being Too Poor”

FEB. 1, 2018 – From limiting diversion fees to offering meaningful alternatives to counterproductive fines, prosecutors can play an important role in ensuring the criminal justice system promotes public safety and accountability — and doesn’t criminalize poverty or punish the poor — writes FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky in a Huffington Post Op-Ed.

“Prosecutors hold immense authority as justice system leaders. They should use their positions to bring together legislators, law enforcement officials, judges and defense counsel, among others, to work to ensure the justice system advances justice, not cycles of poverty.”
– FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky

“With Money Bail, System Continues to Criminalize Poverty”

JULY 27, 2017 – Winnebago County (WI) District Attorney Christian Gossett and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky discuss concerns with the current money bail system and urge prosecutors to “take responsibility for their role in this damaged system and do what they can to ensure the criminal justice system does not perpetuate the modern-day debtors’ prison.” Read more here.

“What money bail can do is cause people to be incarcerated unnecessarily. This can seriously destabilize people’s lives — and in turn, their families and communities — by causing them to lose their jobs, homes or children.”
– Winnebago County (Oshkosh, WI) District Attorney Christian Gossett and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky