The bail algorithm has been touted as the savior of the American justice system. According to its proponents this little understood computer program is able to determine in a nanosecond whether a person will show up in court later if released without bail. So if the computer gives someone the thumbs-up they’re allowed to walk free. If not, then the judge is free to order them held indefinitely. It’s a system many politicians and media types would have you believe is the best thing since sliced bread. But with a growing mountain of evidence that proves otherwise it’s time to admit that bail algorithms just don’t work.
If you want to know what’s behind the rise of the bail algorithm you don’t have to look very far. Since 1973 the US prison population has grown from around 200,000 to more than 2,300,000. Housing, feeding and guarding that population costs more than $80 billion per year. In addition there are nearly 2 million more people being held in state prisons and local jails all putting a strain on state and local budgets.
The bail algorithm promises to reduce the number of people sitting in jail thereby reducing the financial strain on the legal system. Proponents hide behind the ruse that its goal is to reduce inequality allegedly created by the bail system. To bolster their argument they cast the bondsman as the moral equivalent of the ambulance chaser. But make no mistake: the real motivation behind the embrace of the bail algorithm is to cut costs. And justice be damned. Fewer prisoners means fewer jails, fewer guards, fewer meals, fewer inmates needing medical care and smaller budget deficits.
The most popular bail algorithm is called the Arnold algorithm. It was created out of whole cloth by a man named John Arnold. Arnold made his fortune trading in natural gas derivatives for the disgraced Enron Corporation. After Enron collapsed Arnold escaped prosecution and formed his own hedge fund, from which he retired in 2012. After retiring he needed to shelter assets from the feds so he did what many wealthy people do: he created a private charitable foundation.
Now private charitable foundations need to demonstrate they’re doing something or they lose their tax exempt status. Arnold decided that one of the things his foundation could do would be to develop, promote and give away their bail algorithm program to any state that wanted it. Those states, desperate to reduce the costs associated with growing incarceration rates, saw the free program as a way to do just that.
The problem is that politicians are notoriously short-sighted and will almost always sell the public interest down the river if it means they can create some positive soundbytes for their next re-election campaign. And so they have been latching onto the Arnold algorithm in an effort to seem like champions of justice who also reduced growing state and local deficits. The problem is the algorithm doesn’t work. All it really does is put more dangerous individuals on the street who have no incentive to ever appear to face the charges against them. Each one of those individuals must also be electronically monitored after being released. Which undermines the presumption of innocence at the core of our justice system and produces huge unanticipated costs for state and local governments.
Colorado politicians are now busy trying to convince the people Jefferson County, Arapahoe County, Denver County and elsewhere that eliminating the bail bonds system that has worked for centuries is somehow a good idea. But before you buy their particular brand of snake oil consider the following facts:
It’s time for politicians to have the courage to admit that bail algorithms don’t work. No good can come from clinging to the fantasy that creating more fugitives, increasing taxes and trampling on the rights of victims is somehow a good thing.