Half a Million Americans Are in Jail Right Now Without a Trial

Overcrowded prison

Right now, about 480,000 people are locked in American jails nationwide awaiting trial. Their median wait time will be 68 days, but for some, it will be much, much longer. At the notorious Riker’s Island prison in New York, for example, some 1,500 people have been imprisoned for a year or longer without trial. Another 400 have been there at least two years, and six prisoners have been waiting more than half a decade for their day in court.  The report issued by prisonstudies.org can be read here: World Pre-Trial Imprisonment Report

The world-wide numbers are sobering, but the United States is definitely in the lead with some of the highest numbers of incarcerations in the world, without a trial. The total includes some 480,000 in the United States, 255,000 in India, 195,000 in Brazil, 116,000 in Russia, 107,000 in Mexico, 70,000 in the Philippines, 66,000 in Thailand, 55,000 in Iran, 50,000 in both Indonesia and Pakistan, 48,000 in Turkey, 47,000 in Bangladesh, 44,000 in South Africa, 40,000 in Colombia, 37,000 in both Nigeria and Peru, 35,000 in Venezuela, 32,000 in Morocco and 31,000 in Argentina.

While some of these prisoners may indeed be guilty of violent crimes, three out of four are low-level offenders, accused of nonviolent infractions like drug possession or traffic violations. In other words, most of them aren’t a danger to society; they just can’t make bail.

Washington Post reports,

A 2013 analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for changes in drug laws, found that nearly 40 percent of New Jersey’s jail population fell into this category. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that among felony defendants in the nation’s largest counties, 34 percent were detained before trial because they couldn’t make bail.

The idea of bail makes a lot of intuitive sense: when someone’s charged with a crime, you make them put down a deposit to ensure they show up in court for trial. If they don’t put the money down, they have to wait in jail.

Keeping half a million people jailed pre-trial costs about $17 billion annually. It can also assign life-altering consequences to relatively small mistakes, as 68 days in jail is more than enough time to default on rent or wear an employer’s patience thin. Loss of home or job, in turn, compounds taxpayers’ costs, making it far more likely that defendants, once released, will require public assistance.

Parts of this article were published on TheWeek.com by Bonnie Kristian