Freedom for Sale: For-Profit Bail System

Imagery of money and freedom| Courtesy of Google

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
More from Victoria Rodriguez


  • I was glad to read this article on the system. The companies themselves by nature of their service have a reputation just above legalized prostitution.
    The author mentions the disparity between those who can afford bail and those who can not. The most famous case of bail mishandling I believe happened in Miami where a judge had a member of the Medellin cartel and set bail at a miserable five million dollars ( pocket change for the cartel).
    it is understandable high bail for serious crimes and the defendant is a flight risk. But I agree with the author that often judges don’t consider poverty or wealth in making bail decisions.

  • Very well written article and interesting topic. I have never read an article that went through this detail within the bail system. People that have to deal with this are automatically at a disadvantage and treated unfairly. It was very noticeable that the author had done lots of research and was familiar with the issue as the article was super informative!

  • This was a very well-written article. It explained the injustices in the for-profit bail system in a way that was easy to follow, and it made it simpler to understand where the inequalities lie. One such instance mentioned in the article was the probability of wealthy criminals being able to pay their bail while the more poverty-struck innocent would have no way to do so. This system may not have been created for that intended purpose, but it still is having these kinds of effects, so it’s good that this article exist to highlight the flaws.

  • I must congratulate you on the publication of your article. I have never read an article on the history media site that covers a relevant topic regarding the prejudiced United States criminal court system. I think this is an article that needed to be share and read by all ages and backgrounds. Concerning the Kalief Browder case, it is interesting that it took 3 years for the prosecutors to figure out they did not have a case while a teenager sat in jail.

  • Congratulations on your nomination. It is so sad to hear these horrible stories that occur every day in our justice system. The author informs about this unfair practices of the bail bond system. Kalief Browder maybe would have not taken his life had he been given a bond and not have step foot in the prison system. The author did an excellent job telling the story of problems of the bail bond system to the reader. (reposted)

  • Congratulations on your nomination. It is so sad to hear these horrible stories that occur every day in our justice system. The author informs about this unfair practices of the bail bond system. Kalief Browder maybe would have not taken his life had he been given a bond and not have step foot in the prison system. The author did an excellent job telling the story of problems of the bail bond system to the reader.

  • The justice system targets the poor all too often. If you have money you can afford to commit a crime. Otherwise, you are taxed with paying for a lawyer and placing bail. In most cases, a public defender must be assigned, and they may not have the skills to properly protect their client. In other cases, like Browder’s, one cannot even afford to pay bail in the first place. This leaves them to suffer the experience of being incarcerated.

  • Congratulations on your nomination, I really like this article because it makes readers aware of how the criminal justice system is unjust. The title is a great indicator of what the bail system is in place for. People have to pay for freedom but not everyone can pay for that freedom therefore it creates a system that favors those with money. Overall, this article is well written and informative. It also keeps the reader engaged and it flows very nicely.

  • Stories like these are disheartening and bring down my faith in society. You did a great job at explaining such a tragic story. The system continues to fail people of color and it is appalling that we still have not found a solution. People like Kalief Browder deserves more than what the justice system is offering them. For-profit bail systems are only meant to help the privileged and continue diminishing the disadvantaged.

  • I found this article to be well written and informative on the realities of persons being imprisoned without the proper financial resources to afford bail. The For-profit bail system most often affects communities who cannot afford the hefty fines and bail that is set to release someone who is awaiting trial. Congratulations on your nomination, this is a fantastic informative article!

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