How Money Bail Keeps Texas Families in Poverty


In Texas, money means freedom. Release from a Texas jail before trial depends on your ability to pay a cash bond or hire a bail bondsman. If you don’t have enough money, you’ll stay in jail until your trial or until you plead guilty. Personal bonds (meaning release without any money payment) are rare in Texas. This means that many of the people in Texas jails are not detained because they are public safety risks, but because they could not afford to pay for their release.

The impact of this system extends beyond the individual who sits in the jail cell. New research shows the ripple effect that this unconstitutional practice can have on families.

Since 2011, there has been an alarming 48 percent increase in the number of women awaiting trial in Texas jails, despite an approximately 20% decline in their arrests over the same time period.  This dramatic increase outpaced the 11 percent increase in the number of men in jail awaiting trial, who also saw approximately the same rate of reduction in arrests.

Earlier this month, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) released a report on justice-involved women, A Growing Population: The Surge of Women in Texas’ Criminal Justice System that helps shed some light on this trend. TCJC conducted a statewide survey of women in Texas prisons, asking them about issues ranging from education to prior abuse, and received hundreds of responses. Their responses confirm that most of the women are already poor when they enter the justice system: more than half of TCJC’s survey respondents reported an annual income of less than $10,000 before being arrested; and 4 in 5 reported an income of less than $30,000.

Texas women are already more likely to live in poverty than men (16% of working-age women vs. 11.5% of working-age men), so any system that punishes people based on economic status, like our money-based bail system, will have a greater impact on women. However, with the dramatic increase in women in jail and the new research demonstrating just how many of the women being jailed are low-income, it’s clear just how profound of an impact the bail system is having on women.

But incarcerated women are not the only ones impacted by the money-based bail system: Their children suffer profoundly as well. Four in 5 women surveyed by TCJC were mothers, reflecting similar national findings about the percentage of detained women with children. An increasing number of women in jail means an increasing number of Texas children hurt by having an incarcerated mother.

In addition to the trauma of having a parent incarcerated, particularly if that parent is a child’s primary caregiver, a child’s financial security suffers as a direct result of his mother being jail. A mother who remains in jail is much more likely to lose her existing employment. She’s also much more likely to receive a criminal conviction, as compared to a person charged with the exact same offense but with the money to make bail. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court explained this in its recent opinion in the Harris County bail litigation:

[T]ake two misdemeanor arrestees who are identical in every way—same charge, same criminal backgrounds, same circumstances, etc.—except that one is wealthy and one is indigent . . . One arrestee is able to post bond, and the other is not. As a result, the wealthy arrestee is less likely to plead guilty, more likely to receive a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to bear the social costs of incarceration. The poor arrestee, by contrast, must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart. The district court held that this state of affairs violates the equal protection clause, and we agree. O’Donnell v Harris County, No. 17-20333 (5th Cir. Feb. 14, 2018).

Those criminal convictions make it much harder for mothers to get jobs to support their families when they are eventually released. As the Vera Institute explained: “Criminal justice involvement is now widely recognized as both a consequence and cause of poverty.”

Inextricably linked with this economic injustice are the racial disparities that run throughout the criminal justice system. Women of color are dramatically overrepresented in jails and also more likely to be impacted by poverty. The money-based bail system therefore impacts them more greatly and perpetuates racial wealth disparities in Texas, making it more likely that children of color will continue to experience poverty if their mothers’ are jailed.

Releasing people from jail based on their risk to public safety—not their ability to afford bail—would mean that lower income mothers, and in turn their children, are not pushed into a cycle of poverty. Such a change to the bail system by Texas legislators and policymakers would make a significant step towards economic opportunity for Texas families and financial security for Texas children.