Incarceration rates in New Jersey and around the country are among the highest in the world, but not all jail inmates are behind bars because they committed a crime. Many indigent criminal defendants are sent to jail before their trials even begin because they cannot afford to post bail, and thousands more find themselves behind bars because of outstanding traffic tickets or unpaid fines.

Civil rights groups have called the current system a war on the poor, but implementing reform is proving difficult because many municipalities have grown reliant on the revenue generated by fines and fees. The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that incarcerating individuals who are too poor to pay fines violates the U.S. Constitution, but the situation persists. Fees and fines are used to fund the court systems in many parts of the country, and judges in some states are required to explain themselves in writing when they are waived.

The courts have grown increasingly impatient in recent years about the slow rate of progress. The Conference of Chief Justices, which is comprised of senior judges from all 50 states, has said that reforming fines, fees and bail is one of the nonprofit organization’s top priorities. A national task force of judicial officials and court administrators has also weighed in on the issue. In a set of principles released in 2018, the group called for courts to be funded by the government and not used to generate revenue.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge prosecutors to take a more lenient approach toward bail when their clients have limited means and are accused of committing minor crimes. Attorneys may remind prosecutors that the criminal justice system should reform rather than punish offenders, and they could also point out that poor defendants who lose their jobs because of pretrial incarceration may be more likely to get into trouble again.