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Bail reform: We choose our priorities

There are more jails and prisons —over 5,000—in the United States than degree-granting colleges and universities. State and local spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of funding for public education for preschool through grade 12 education in the last three decades,according to a report by the US Department of Education.

It’s rarely noted that one out of every three incarcerated people is held in a local jail, not a state or federal prison. That 5000-plus number includes 3,283 jails—like the ones in Thurston County and surrounding jurisdictions. Yet our local jails receive scant attention.

Sitting in jail but convicted of nothing

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, at any given moment there are more than 700,000 people held in local jails. More than half of these individuals have not been convicted of anything. They are in jail because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial, or because they’ve just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days.

These people are legally considered innocent until proven otherwise in court. But if they don’t have the money to post bail, the principle that they are legally innocent is not enough to keep them from being locked up until trial.

Our priorities transform our future

It seems our jails function as modern-day debtor’s prisons, with the consequences that family life is disrupted, jobs and housing can be lost even when the person in jail is found not guilty. Pre-trial detention also coerces people to plead guilty to some offenses, including people who are factually innocent.

In addition to those jailed awaiting trial, the remainder are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.

There is a movement today to reform the bail system. But meaningful bail reform is not enough. We need to be asking why we arrest so many people on low-level offenses in the first place and why so many of them come from poor black and brown communities.

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