A good number of the people who are locked up in our jails have not actually been convicted of any crimes. A good number of people who are in prisons are actually on pretrial detention. They are held in jails while going through trial. Some of them have been given bail, but they are unable to meet the bail terms: usually because of poverty. So they have to stay in prison, right up to the end of their cases – whereupon they may be convicted, resulting in further incarceration. Others have been denied bail, for one reason or another, following the bail hearings. A question that tends to come up regarding all these people is the one as to whether the pretrial detention they find themselves in is justified.
Before going any further with this discussion, it is important to appreciate that all people are presumed to be innocent, until they are found guilty by courts of law. Therefore, ideally, nobody should be detained before they are found guilty by a court of law: because detention, by whichever definition, is a form of punishment.
There is a school of thought which believes that pretrial detention is justified in certain cases. Those are, for instance, cases where the defendants are likely to interfere with the witnesses, if they are released on bail. Or cases where the defendants are likely to abscond, if they are released on bail. Nobody can argue with these facts: but it is important to ensure that the cases of the people who are held in pretrial detention proceed fast. Otherwise we may end up with situations where people are held in pretrial detention for long, only for them be declared not guilty at the end of trial.
The cases of pretrial detention that are hard to justify are those in which the defendants are held due to inability to raise the required bail money. So, effectively, such people are held on pretrial detention because they are poor: not because they are likely to abscond or to interfere with witnesses, but because they are poor. Even sadder is the fact that the bail amounts in question are usually small sums of money: sometimes less than a typical Walmart discount. But because the poor people can’t raise that much money, they have to be held in pretrial detention. Such cases of pretrial detention are hard to justify.