No human being should have to stay in jail because of poverty. Yet, every night people in the City of St. Louis, Missouri, and throughout the country sit in jail without being convicted of a crime, simply because they are poor – because they don’t have enough money to make bail.
For many people, even what is considered a fairly low bail amount is unfeasible. Every day, judges habitually put a price on a person's freedom, and it is often one he or she cannot afford. Additionally, studies show that African Americans are assigned higher bail amounts than non-African-American defendants for the same crimes.
It is immoral to be subjected to prison simply because of poverty. I witnessed this firsthand when I was arrested in 2018 because of multiple traffic tickets. A judge issued me a bond totaling $5,000. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand how many people I know who have $5,000 to just give away.
The stakes at these bail hearings could not be higher: freedom or imprisonment. If you are wealthy, you can post the bail amount and walk free, whether or not you pose a danger to other people or a risk to flee before your trial date.
In the City of St. Louis, a movement to reform the cash bail system has gained steam behind the Bail Project, led by a group of concerned St. Louisans who believe it’s time for a change. The Bail Project and its community partners advocate for ending the cash bail system and closing one of St. Louis’ two jails, the Medium Security Institution, also known as “the Workhouse.”
Over 70 percent of the population in the Workhouse is African-American (in a city where African Americans are 48 percent of the overall population). The Workhouse typically confines people who are awaiting trial. Most are charged with non-violent crimes and low-level offenses. The average stay in the Workhouse is almost 300 days. That’s 7,200 hours a person has lost, simply because he or she is poor.
I will work my colleagues on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to rectify this gross injustice in our city. I urge state legislators, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and Governor Mike Parson to respond to this issue and enact or support comprehensive bail reform in our justice system – or, depending on who you are talking to and how much money they have, our injustice system.
John C. Muhammad is alderman of St. Louis’ 21st Ward.