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Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recently claimed "some 200,000 people are in jail for the crime of being poor and not being able to afford bail."
He made that claim during a campaign speech in Sacramento last week, just blocks from the California State Capitol, where former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law last year to abolish cash bail and adopt a risk-assessment system.
Sanders introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate in 2018 to end cash bail nationwide. It’s part of his criminal justice reform platform. But the issue remains unsettled, including in California.
In January, the bail industry qualified a referendum for the state’s November 2020 ballot, giving voters a say on whether to eliminate cash bail.
Given the focus on this topic, we wanted to know whether Sanders’ figure of "some 200,000" is accurate.
In the past, PolitiFact has reported there is no official national tracking of this number, though researchers have used data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to extrapolate how many people might be in jail because they can’t afford bail.
They point to the bureau’s 2018 report which uses 2016 data. It says there were 458,600 "unconvicted" people held in jails across the country. Some, however, were held without bail and others were awaiting commitment to a mental-health facility.
For those reasons, PolitiFact rated Half True a related claim by California Rep. Ted Lieu last year. It found the Deomocratic congressman overestimated the total when he said: "Every day over 450,000 Americans sit in jail not because they've been convicted of anything, but because they are too poor to pay bail & don't have high powered attorneys."
Sanders’ campaign said his 200,000 figure is "a safe estimate" based on a December 2018 report by the Hamilton Project, an arm of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group. But that report puts the figure far higher.
"There are more than 400,000 people in jail whom a judge would have allowed to be released had they been able to post bail," it says.
Ryan Nunn, one of the report’s authors, told us the 400,000 number "is definitely a ballpark estimate." He said his report relied on 2009 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Shima Baradaran Baughman is a law professor at the University of Utah, where she’s written extensively about cash bail.
"It seems like a low estimate," she said of Sanders’ figure.
Darren Hutchinson, a law professor at the University of Florida who has also studied the topic, emphasized that all the figures are estimates.
"I am not aware of any national database that tracks the number of people who are in jail because they cannot pay bail," Hutchinson said in an email. "Most of the recent studies on this issue continue to rely on projections that compare the average income and available assets of individuals detained in jails and an estimate of the average bail amount."
"It is entirely possible that the number of detainees who cannot afford bail exceeds the figure Sanders stated," he added.
Sanders was quoted last year in an article by The Guardian placing the number at "400,000 people," which matches estimates in recent studies.
Sen. Bernie Sanders recently claimed "some 200,000 people are in jail for the crime of being poor and not being able to afford bail."
Experts say there is no national database that tracks this figure, only estimates. The report Sanders cited placed the figure closer to 400,000.
Still, experts told us Sanders’ overall point is right: Many Americans languish in jail for the sole reason they can’t afford bail.
In the end, we found his claim was partially accurate but underestimates the total.
We rate it Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, speech, Sacramento Aug. 22, 2019
Joe Calvello, spokesman for Sanders campaign, email exchange Aug. 26, 2019
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jail Inmates in 2016, February 2018
The Brookings Institution, The Hamilton Project, The Economics of Bail and Pretrial Detention, December 2018
Ryan Nunn, policy director, The Hamilton Project, phone interview Aug. 27, 2019
Shima Baradaran Baughman, Professor, College of Law, The University of Utah, August 27, 2019, phone interview
Darren Hutchinson, Stephen C. O’Connell Chair at the Levin College of Law, University of Florida, August 28, 2019, phone interivew
PolitiFact California, Do more than 450,000 Americans sit in jail because they are too poor to pay bail?, June 29, 2018
The Guardian, Bernie Sanders' cash bail bill seeks to end 'modern day debtors' prisons', July 25, 2019
Sacramento Bee, Jerry Brown signs bill eliminating money bail in California, Aug. 28, 2018
Sacramento Bee, The fate of California’s cash bail industry will now be decided on the 2020 ballot, Jan. 17, 2019
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