More than one in five people behind bars in America have not been convicted of a crime. These alleged offenders throughout Illinois and the rest of the U.S. sit in jail while they await trial. The nation’s system of cash bail has been criticized by social advocacy groups for being unfairly harsh on poor defendants, and a study conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and Princeton seems to add weight to these claims. The researchers scrutinized tax and court records to determine how pretrial detention affected the outcome of criminal cases. They found that pretrial release decreases the likelihood of a guilty verdict by 14 percent.

Unless they pose a threat to the community or are considered to be a flight risk, those accused of committing crimes are usually able to avoid incarceration while they await trial by posting cash bail. However, posting even modest sums can be difficult or impossible for poor defendants. According to the study, individuals who are incarcerated while their cases are pending typically earned less than $7,000 in the 12 months before they were arrested.

The data also suggests that those subject to pretrial detention are especially eager to resolve their cases so that they can regain their freedom. Defendants who can’t afford bail are 10.8 percent more likely to enter a plea agreement. Researchers concluded that this willingness to plead guilty was at the root of the higher conviction rates they observed.

Poor defendants often believe that the criminal justice system treats them unfairly, and these feelings can be particularly strong when they are unable to post bail. Experienced criminal defense attorneys may point out that the protections provided by the U.S. Constitution apply to the rich and poor alike. If necessary, legal counsel can provide representation to a client throughout a court trial.