John Oliver on US bail: ‘Arbitrary, destructive and criminalizes poverty’

The Last Week Tonight host examines the broken cash bail system in the US and GOP efforts to discredit local reform efforts

John Oliver examined backlash to bail reform efforts in numerous states, as Republican candidates have made efforts to fix the predatory system of cash bail in the US a bogeyman of public safety.

Oliver first recapped the bail system in the US, which requires those arrested, but not yet convicted, of a crime to pay collateral to a local jail. The system is rife with traps keeping people locked up: bail hearings often last just a few minutes with no defense counsel present – “I don’t know exactly how long it should take to put a price on someone’s freedom, but it probably shouldn’t fit neatly into an Instagram story,” Oliver noted. Bail bondsmen, private businesses which post bail for a fee, have become a lucrative shadow industry.

Those that can’t afford either remain behind bars, leading to a huge spike in non-convicted local jail inmates; roughly two-thirds of people held in locally run jails across the country have not been convicted of a crime. “Most of them are there because they simply couldn’t afford to bail themselves out, which is terrible,” Oliver explained. “We shouldn’t hold people captive in shitty conditions simply because they can’t buy their way out – that is what Spirit Airlines is for.”

In other words: “Cash bail is arbitrary, destructive and basically criminalizes poverty,” said Oliver, which is why numerous states have instituted bail reform laws in recent years. But the backlash has been swift from people who are “only too happy to blur the line between charge and conviction”, said Oliver.

He pointed to the example of New York, whose bail reform law took effect on New Year’s Day of 2020. Just eight days later, state legislators were out trying to repeal the law based on “public fear” absent any meaningful data. The former New York City police commissioner Dermot Shea also tried to spin non-existent data into a bail reform failure. (According to NYPD data, only one of 528 shooting incidents in the first half of 2020 was committed by someone out on bail.) Shea told state legislators that the percentage of crimes committed by people out on bail reform was “not dramatic”, but then told a local news interview that bail reform was “100%” leading to more shootings.

“Well which is it, Dermot?” Oliver fumed. “Are the numbers ‘not dramatic’, or is bail reform ‘100%’ leading to more shootings, because those are mutually exclusive. The only place where not dramatic and 100% can exist at the same time is in Kristen Stewart’s whole general vibe. She’s giving it her all but she’s also giving us absolutely nothing.”

“The problem is all of this – the exaggerated claims and the sensational headlines – have made a real impression on people,” he continued, noting decreased support for the bail reform law in New York. “It’s hard to overcome the emotional impact of the claim that bail reform harms public safety.”

Isolated instances of rearrests on bail exist, “but if public safety is genuinely your priority, cash bail has never fundamentally been about that”, he added.

Oliver pointed to a 2021 Harvard Kennedy School analysis of bail reform across multiple jurisdictions which found no evidence that bail reform led to a meaningful increase in crime. “The point here is: if we wanted to, there are multiple ways to design a system that truly prioritized public safety,” said Oliver. “But if you count the accused as part of the public, which you really should, we should be considering their safety too, because terrible things happen when you are locked up pre-trial.”

That’s not just loss of job or car but also loss of life – between 2008 and 2019, nearly 5,000 inmates died in jail who were never convicted of the crimes on which they were being held. Oliver brought up a clip of Kalief Browder, held in Rikers for three years for a burglary charge he was never convicted of, that Last Week Tonight intended to play for their bail segment in 2015. They cut the clip the night before taping when they learned of Browder’s suicide.

“His death isn’t even included in any of the tallies of people who were killed by Rikers, despite the fact it sure feels like it should be,” said Oliver, further evidence that “to defend this system is to defend a people-wrecking machine.”

Looking ahead, “if we’re not careful, we’re going to go backwards, which would be a huge mistake,” he continued. Oliver advocated a system based on a few basic principles: prioritize allowing people to stay free on any minor offense charge; bail hearings longer than 10 seconds; requiring counsel present at bail hearings; and expediting trials for people detained.

“I’m not saying that reform is going to be easy or that it’s simple,” he said. “There are going to be disagreements even among advocates about best practices here. But right now, we can’t even have those important conversations because all the air in the room is being taken up by bullshit fearmongering ads, fake newspapers and confidently delivered lies from men in uniform.

“Even after convictions, we’re clearly locking far too many people up in this country,” he concluded. “But to do it before they’ve even been convicted? Of anything? Is proof that civil liberties only tangibly apply to the privileged and for everyone else, they are entirely theoretical.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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