Chapter and Verse: The History of the Bail System

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Dear and Beloved Colleagues,

I am not sure how it is that the Code knows just what I need to hear. This fat, new baby of mine falls right into the sections that are most applicable right when I need them, it seems. As I turned through the sections we’ve already covered and came across the next section in our read-along, boom, right there, in the middle of page 13: Art. 1.07 Right To Bail.

Any recognizable form of a bail system started with the Anglo Saxons, somewhere around 600 AD. Stay with me, beloved friends. This isn’t as boring as you think it’s going to be. The Anglo Saxons, you’ll remember, were the people who lived about where England is now (Angle-land, get it?) and they left us a lot of their language and some of their culture, and they farmed and fished in relative harmony until about 1066 or so, when something terrible happened, but that’s not what we’re talking about now. The Anglo Saxons developed a system of were-gild. “Were” means “man,” like in “were-wolf,” and “gild” means “gold,” or more generally “money.” So they developed this Man-Money system. There was a whole list of crimes and the corresponding restitution payments: if you cut off someone’s index finger, that was punished by a set amount. If you cut off someone’s pinky finger, there was a lower amount. There were things we might think of as enhancements (You stole a pig? That’s $50. Oh, it was the King’s pig? That’s $100). Then there were things that were mitigating (You stole a wife? That’s $200. You stole her from her second husband? That’s $100 and you have to keep her).  There was an idea that people generally aren’t dangerous to the community as a whole, so expending massive resources to confine someone, or wasting manpower by executing or mutilating people for small offenses, was probably not good for anybody. I tend to agree with them on this point.

Though the law was clear about what the restitution amounts were, trials still had to take place in front of factfinders, and sometimes that took a while. This is where the bail system emerged. People who were charged with a crime had to find someone who would stand as their surety, and if they absconded pre-trial, the surety would agree to pay the were-gild in full. Everyone was satisfied.

But then, as time went on, things changed. The horrible events of 1066 unfurled. Later, Martin Luther would drive a stake into the heart (and door) of the church, and the rift that followed would both lead to the colonization of the US and the rise of capitalism, both of which have everything to do with the current ridiculous money-bail situation we find ourselves in today, my dear coworkers. Now bail amounts are arbitrary and almost entirely discretionary. This is made worse by the predatory practices of commercial bondsmen, and the misinterpretation by judges of how those bondsmen work.

What’s the point of all of this history? I’m not sure. Something about how we can learn from the past, from even older, dead-er white guys who made the law before this current iteration, how the barbarians 1,500 years ago were more humane, somehow, than these barbarians in expensive haircuts and tailored suits who make the law now. Oh, friends who are still with me, I am at a loss this month. How weird it is to write about bail when one has been sheltering in one’s home for months on end.

 But what I will say about this section of this giant tome of sections is that it is short–blessedly, powerfully, impactfully so. In the same vein as “Jesus wept.”

“ALL PRISONERS ARE BAILABLE.” Of course, there’s an asterisk to that–the “death is different” asterisk. But for us, that is all we have to remember, that single promise reaching out to us through history and cronyism and viruses and uncertain futures: All prisoners are bailable. Some are more bailable than others.

Love always.

TCDLA
TCDLA
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis
Allison Mathis is a criminal defense attorney in the post-conviction writs division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in Houston, Texas. She has defended the public from the spurious claims of the government in various places, including Aztec, New Mexico, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, and the Republic of Palau. She serves on TCDLA’s board of directors and is a founding member of her office’s extraordinary Knit Club. Before she was a lawyer, she was a superlative late-night diner waitress and an aspiring literary critic, but mostly she drank wine. You can reach her at .
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