Yesterday, at the H.F. Guggenheim conference on “Smart Justice” at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Tim Murray, Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, raised the issue of bail reform.

“This reform has a natural enemy,” explained Murray, “That’s the very people who profit financially from the current system. The bail-for-profit system is tiny and it’s got deep pockets.”

Bail is intended as a guarantee that an alleged offender will come back to court or forfeit their bail money (and be at risk of an added charge of “failure to appear”).

That very first time an alleged offender appears in court, the judge is required to assess the person and ask: If I let him or her go now, will they come back to court? and will they re-offend?

But does bail work?

In essence it divides people into two groups: those that can afford it and those who cannot. And those who cannot are jailed while they wait for their case to wind its way through the system.

So Murray argues that it’s time to look at risk assessment tools instead. And while there has been interest in bail reform (see today’s New York Times), it has been slow.

“This is the least sexy, the least glamorous of all the criminal justice stuff,” explains Murray. In some parts of the country bail is just a routine part of the system, administered in a basement with little thought of the consequences for the person who can’t pay.

“This is a system where each subsequent alleged crime generates more profit. You cannot justify any of this.”

For more on the impact of bail, listen to this excellent 2010 series by NPR’s Laura Sullivan.