StMU Research Scholars

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November 4, 2018

Freedom for Sale: For-Profit Bail System

Kalief Browder, an African American sixteen year old from the Bronx in New York City, was walking home from a party with his friend when he was stopped by police unexpectedly and charged with an alleged theft in 2010. The accuser, Roberto Bautista, was sitting in a police squad car and identified Browder and his friend as the thieves. The theft was a backpack that was said to contain $700 dollars, a credit card, and an iPod Touch.  In his interrogation, with police, Kalief Browder insisted that he had not robbed anyone and that neither the backpack nor its contents would be found in his possession. Browder and his friend were then taken to the precinct where they were processed and taken to central booking. Within the following 48 hours Browder was interrogated and charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. At arraignment, bail was set at $3,000 dollars. If Browder’s family used a bondsman the amount would be ten percent plus fees or around $900 dollars for his bail to the bondsman. The bondsman would then post the entire bail amount with the court. The family could not pay $900 resulting in Browder remaining imprisoned at Rikers Island for the next three years.1

Kalief Browder
Kalief Browder in his featured article | Courtesy of New York Times Magazine 2
As in the case of Browder, often times those who cannot afford bail are incarcerated and subjected to the trauma of being imprisoned before their trial. This can result in the defendant losing his or her job, home, and children. While the accused is jailed, the prosecutor for the assigned case will frequently attempt to make plea deals with the defendant, claiming that if they just plead guilty, they will not have to be subjected to the reality of spending their time where they are already held. For the next three years, Kalief Browder was visited over and over again to be persuaded to plead guilty by his appointed legal defender. After a year had past Browder’s case was falling apart, there was no evidence, the eye witness was no longer in the country, yet Browder was still incarcerated at Rikers.2 His trial was delayed, the prosecution sat on his case for another two years until the judge finally released Browder as innocent. Unfortunately, Kalief Browder, lost his innocence along with three years of his youth even as he was not guilty of the crime. The trauma from his incarceration made him unable to attempt to go back to living out his life. Within a short time after being released he committed suicide due to the trauma he developed during his time in Riker’s.

Image criticizing the cash bail system|Courtesy of California Assembly District

Debtors jail in colonial America was used to lock up those who owed money to the government. In today’s society, it translates into the cash bail system. 4 The for-profit bail system in the United States is used to keep those who are accused of breaking the law from harming anybody else or to be sure the accused will appear in court. If the accused is unable to pay the bail at the time of the arraignment, they may use a bondsman or they will remain incarcerated until their trial. For the poor, it is the latter. For Kalief Browder it was the beginning of the end. Only two countries in the whole world have a cash bail system, the United Sates and the Philippines. The cash bail system results in unnecessarily imprisoning citizens who do not pose as a threat to society and who most likely are not a flight risk. No pre-trial information is given to a judge before setting bail and there are no set standards on setting the amount for bail per case.5 Those who are wealthy enough to pay avoid the scarring effect prison has on one’s life. But for those who cannot afford bail, they face violence behind bars, debt, isolation, and at minimum a harsh punishment for those later found innocent, as in Kalief Browder’s case. This has created a two tier system in our judicial process. The first tier are wealthy offenders who can post bail and the second tier is everyone else who cannot afford equal justice or treatment.

Statistics show that 60 percent of people in jail from 2005 to 2015 were in jail awaiting trial. Three fourths of these individuals were accused of nonviolent crimes.6 This is alarming. On a national level, the United States imprisons persons who are essentially living in poverty and who are more susceptible to being involved or accused of a crime. In some instances, the court can grant “release on one’s own recognizance” or ROR. However, this is determined on a state by state standard. An example of this would be New York, the judicial system there would be more willing to grant ROR if the individual has a cellphone, has had a New York address for a year and has a job.7 These may seem like easy standards to meet, but consider those who are homeless, unemployed or cannot afford a cellular service on a regular basis. Their fate rests upon pre-trial bail. The bail money that the defendant does not have, requiring a bondsman, but not always attainable either.

Political image for bail reform|Courtesy of Google8
A bondsman requires collateral and ten percent of the bail as set by the court. Once the defendant goes through trial, the bond money is returned to the bondsman who retains it for the service plus the original fees. If the defendant fails to appear in court then the court calls on the bondsman to pay the full bail. Bondsmen protect themselves with an insurance.9 For some, this can seem a fair process. For others, bail is simply unattainable in full or in part. In Kalief Browder’s case, his family may not have owned anything to put up for collateral and was not able to put up the ten percent (plus fees). Kalief Browder and many other citizens of the United States, have a price on their freedom. Contradicting both the Fourteenth Amendment of United States Constitution and Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are all innocent until proven guilty and we are all entitled to our freedom without collateral or a fee.10





  1. Johnson, Stephon “‘Time: The Kalief Browder Story’ Shows Failure of Justice System” New York Amsterdam News, March 2, 2017
  2. Schwirtz, Michael, and Michael Winerip “Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide” The New York Times June 08, 2015
  3. Schwirtz, Michael, and Michael Winerip “Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide” The New York Times June 08, 2015
  4. Steinberg, Robin “Robin Steinberg: What If We Ended the Injustice of Bail?” TED (June 18, 2016.) Https:// .
  5. Lally, Sean “Can the U.S.Radically Alter Its Cash Bail System?” (October 23, 2017)
  6. Gunasekera, Yousha “Bail Means Jail: Debtor’s Prison for the Unconvicted.” Progressive 81, no6 (August 2017): 56–59
  7. King, Elizabeth “Inside the Fight to End Cash Bail” Pacific Standard January 08, 2018
  8. “Bail Bond Services for Waco, Texas” Kocian Bail Bonds December 14, 2015
  9. “Bail Reform” Official Website – Assemblyman Rob Bonta Representing the 18th California Assembly District (March 29, 2018) Accessed September 21, 2018
  10. Gonnerman, Jennifer “Before the Law” The New Yorker December 08, 2017

Tags from the story

Bail Reform

Bail system


Cash Bail


Human Rights Violations


Recent Comments

Aneesa Zubair

I could not stop reading this article; it’s very intriguing and brings to light an ignored issue in our justice system. I was shocked to learn that the U.S. is only one of two countries in the world that have a cash bail system. Kalief Browder’s story shows how even innocent people have to go through the awful experience of being in jail, just because they can’t afford to pay. Thanks for this informative and well-written article!



5:38 pm

Nathan Hartley

Upon reading this article, I realized how our system could be so easily corrupted and abused. I never would have thought to look at the bonds/bail being set to be an inequality, however this article has opened my eyes. Hopefully in the future, this can change, but the way things are right now is unacceptable.



5:38 pm

Lamont Traylor

I do not understand the bail system. When I say that, I mean I don’t understand why people can buy their freedom after committing serious crimes, but if a poor person gets in trouble for something small and the judge decides to set a high bail, then that person can’t afford to get out of jail. It’s just another fault in our justice system.



5:38 pm

Ariana Melendez

Reading this article was very eye-opening since I had never thought much of the bail system being corrupt. It is disappointing and sad to know that this is what keeps so many innocent people, usually impoverished and/or from a minority race, imprisoned. This article does a god job of showcasing the injustice of the for-profit bail system in the United States through Kalief Browder’s story.



5:38 pm

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