Detaining the poor: New report finds that people detained pretrial are too poor to afford money bail

New report finds people unable to meet bail are poorest of the poor.

May 10, 2016


Bernadette Rabuy
brabuy [at]

Easthampton, MA — People in local jails are significantly poorer than non-incarcerated people, and even poorer than people in prison, finds a new report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time connects the large pretrial population in local jails to the criminal justice system’s reliance on money bail. “I kept hearing that 80% of defendants are indigent, but I was curious if people in local jails are even poorer than people in prison. To get a better picture of the role that money bail plays in the large unconvicted jail population in the U.S., we focused specifically on people unable to meet bail. I expected people unable to meet bail to be poor, but I was surprised that a majority fall within the poorest third of the national income distribution,” said Bernadette Rabuy, who, along with data scientist Dan Kopf, last year published a similar report on the pre-incarceration incomes of people in state prison.

The latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reveal that median bail for felony defendants was $10,000. “Using another BJS dataset, the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, we found that the typical detained defendant would need to spend eight months’ income to cover $10,000 in money bail,” explained Kopf.

Detaining the Poor’s release coincides with newly published research by the Federal Reserve showing that many Americans are unable come up with $400 in an emergency without borrowing money from others or selling something. “If the average American cannot easily come up with $400, it is clear that a system that requires $10,000 from the poorest members of our society for pretrial release is a system set up to fail,” explained Rabuy.

The report provides the pre-incarceration incomes of people in local jails who had the opportunity to be released pretrial, but were unable to meet the conditions of bail. The report further breaks down the incomes of the detained population by race, ethnicity, and gender. Additionally, the authors compare pre-incarceration incomes to the incomes of similarly aged non-incarcerated Americans.

While the report focuses on the incomes of people who were detained for their inability to meet bail, the authors recognize the scarcity of useful information about the jail populations in this country, so they also provide the pre-incarceration incomes of people in local jails generally in an appendix.

The new report, Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time is available at:

The report is a collaboration between the Prison Policy Initiative and Dan Kopf, a member of the organization’s Young Professionals Network and co-author of last year’s report on the pre-incarceration incomes of people in state prisons.


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  • Feb 21, 2019:
    Volunteer Attorney Stephen Raher will be presenting his paper “The Company Store and the Literally Captive Market: Consumer Law in Prisons and Jails” at the Consumer Law Conference at Berkeley Law School. The paper will be presented and discussed at 4:00pm.

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