Criminal Justice

Poll: How Do Americans Feel About Pretrial Bail Reform?

A new survey—conducted by Stand Together Trust and the Pretrial Justice Institute—asked Americans about their knowledge and opinion of the United States’ pretrial justice system. Respondents were clear: the current system favors the wealthy and must be reformed.

July 13, 2018

The current money bail system often relies on an individual’s ability to pay, rather than their risk to society. As a result, across the United States, there are nearly 450,000 people are sitting in jail awaiting trial because they lack the funds to make bail. This group is disproportionately low-income and the vast majority pose no flight risk or danger to the community. Studies have found that even when bail is set at $500 or less, only 15 percent of Americans can afford it.

These individuals are people like Jessica Preston, a young Detroit woman who was jailed when she was eight months pregnant after driving on a suspended license. Though she posed no public safety threat, Jessica was required to post a $10,000 bond. Like most Americans, she didn’t have that kind of money. Jessica was put behind bars, and ended up delivering her child—weeks early—while in jail before her trial.

The type of injustice Preston faced is not confined to urban areas like Detroit. Rural pretrial incarceration has grown more than 400 percent since 1970.

Stand Together Trust and the Pretrial Justice Institute wanted to understand Americans’ awareness of the system Jessica and so many other Americans have gone through, and voters’ opinions of it. Our results revealed strong support for bail reform, and the need for continued education about the system’s implications for American families, American communities, and the American economy.

Americans Hungry for Reform
Only 6 percent of Americans feel there is “no need for change” to the current criminal justice system.

Americans Want Public Safety to be Chief Concern
When it comes to deciding whom to release from jail before a trial, a very strong majority (72 percent) believe public safety should be the primary concern. Only 10 percent believe failure to appear for trial should be the deciding factor in whether to incarcerate someone.

Americans Believe Current System Favors Wealthy
More than three-quarters of Americans think the current system favors the wealthy. Sixty-two percent said they feel strongly that the wealthy enjoy better outcomes compared to poor Americans, with a full 78 percent of respondents sharing this belief overall.

 As a Result, Majority Want to Get Rid of Money Bail System for Those Who Can’t Afford to Pay
Fifty-seven percent of Americans favor ending the practice of jailing people who cannot afford money bail before trial in all but “except in extreme cases.”

 Americans Believe Burden of Proof Is on Prosecutors
When asked whether prosecutors should have to make the case to keep someone in jail before trial, or if defendants should have to make the case that they should be released, 52 percent said prosecutors, and only 27 percent said defendants.

Americans Favor Fines over Court and Possible Incarceration
Seventy-six percent of respondents said they would like to see the number of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses reduced by using fines and tickets as a punishment rather than jail time.

Americans Want Limits on Pre-Trial Incarceration
Seventy-two percent of respondents said they support limiting how many days a person not charged with a serious violent crime can stay in jail during pre-trial if they cannot afford money bail.

Poll Results Show Opportunity for Education
At the outset of the poll, 52 percent of respondents had never heard of, or had no opinion of, the term “pre-trial justice.” After the poll introduced possible alternatives to money bail (i.e. risk assessment, pre-trial services), 28 percent of respondents that were originally undecided became supportive of the elimination of money bail.

On behalf of the Pretrial Justice Institute and Stand Together Trust, Lake Research Partners conducted a nationwide survey of 1,400 registered voters, including oversamples of 200 African American and 200 Latino registered voters (MoE + 3.1%), May 2-17, 2018.