Legislative Barriers to Pretrial Reform: Horror Stories

Through the course of my research I’ve read many stories of people who have been effected adversely by money bail. I’ll share a few with you now.

Content Warning: Suicide

Buffalo Judical Discretion:

“The defendant was a 23-year-old black man, who was charged with misdemeanors including marijuana possession and trespass. At first, the judge decided that the defendant was eligible for the Release Under Supervision (RUS) program; he would not have to pay bail and would not be detained pretrial. The defendant then told the judge that he had been mistreated at the Erie County Holding Center the night before, while waiting for his arraignment. After the defendant was seated again, waiting for a RUS representative, he slouched in his chair with what the judge perceived as a negative attitude. The judge told him to sit up, and when he did not comply the judge called him back to the stand. The defendant complained again about his treatment at the Holding Center, and the judge stated, “If you’re acting like this in front of me, I can only imagine what you were doing at the Holding Center.” When the defendant protested, she continued, “If I want to put $100,000 bail on you for acting silly in here, I can do that.” Apparently due to the judge’s dislike of the young man’s demeanor, bail was set for $5,000 cash or insurance”



David Jones:

“In October 2013, Kentucky truck driver David Jones was arrested on charges of distributing child pornography. He insisted he was innocent, and a judge set his bail at $15,000 cash, far above what Jones could pay. That was soon bumped down to $2,500 cash, as long as he could secure another $22,500 with personal property.” “A defense expert could find no evidence Jones had ever downloaded child pornography onto his computer. Late last year, 14 months after Jones was first jailed, a judge lowered bail to just $2,500 cash, which a relative paid. In April, the charges were dropped. By then, Jones had lost his job and his apartment and missed his son’s high school graduation.”



Kalief Browder:

When Kalief Browder was 16 years old, he was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island Jail Complex where he stayed for three years, two of those in solitary confinement while he endured abuse by both prisoners and guards. He was never convicted of a crime. After three years, the prosecutors dropped the charge and he was released; but he could not escape from experience he had in jail. He began to recreate the conditions of solitary confinement in his parent’s house, and in June 2015, he took his life.



Stories help us understand the magnitude of the problem, but it is important to recognize none of these instances were anomalies. This happens every day to thousands of Americans.


  1. Atticus,

    Plea bargaining and pretrial detention are deeply related. Long waiting periods (the average is 8 months) drives demand for plea deals even in cases where the defendant could have been found not guilty by a jury (whether they were factually innocent or not). I have also encountered the argument about rejecting plea deals. This would probably put pressure on the DA becasue they have no where near the resources to try all the cases, but it could have the effect of simply lengthening the wait for a trial. There are some defendants in Texas that have been waiting three years. It would also result in a literal prisoners’ dilemma where it would be hard to maintain cooperation. From a Public Policy standpoint, institutional changes can (and have in some states!) be made to mitigate some of the ill effects.

  2. Alex, I think you’re looking into a very important issue, and your post reminds me of some of the plea bargaining horror stories I’ve read. I’ve yet to decide how I feel about plea bargaining (perhaps I just haven’t thought deeply enough about it). On the one hand, I’m all in favor of saving government resources. On the other hand, easy outs can result in lots of injustices (especially for disadvantaged groups), although that isn’t to say that similar injustices don’t occur after long trials. I’ve also read calls to activism claiming that by refusing plea bargains, suspects can overwhelm the courts and force reconsideration of unfair laws (this argument is particularly relevant in the context of the war on drugs). I’m curious to read any thoughts you might have on the intersection between pre-trial abuses and government resource constraints.

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