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‘If you are poor, you are guilty until proven innocent’ – Usher

The U.S. criminal justice system —which currently holds 2.2 million people — has long been plagued by racial and class disparities. According to the Sentencing Project, African-Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and formerly incarcerated people are eight times less likely to graduate college.

Now, in a new series called ACTIVATE — created by National Geographic and P&G (a partner of Yahoo Lifestyle’s sister brand, MAKERS), R&B artist Usher is raising awareness about one of the practices that fuels these inequities: cash bail. “If you are poor, you are guilty until proven innocent,” says the 40-year-old singer.

Cash bail, defined as “money that you pay as a deposit for the release of a person who has been arrested,” is a growing issue in the U.S. Ranging from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands (or more), it’s often too high a sum for defendants to pay, forcing them to remain in jail for months or even years without trial.

Usher onstage during the Usher New Look Foundation Summit 20th Anniversary VIP Fundraiser at The Gathering Spot on July 24, 2019 in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

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In 2006, according to the Justice Police Institute, the average bail amount of $55,500 was greater than the annual compensation for about 82 percent of U.S. wage earners. As a result, two-thirds of those serving time in jails in 2018 were individuals known as “pretrial detainees.”

The issue is one that Global Citizen, a co-producer of the ACTIVATE series, has been working hard to resolve. In 2018, the organization launched a petition calling for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to end cash bail in New York, where 70 percent of 25,000 New Yorkers serving time in jail are “legally innocent.” One of those individuals was Kalief Browder, a defendant who died by suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island because he was unable to pay $3,000 bail.

Global Citizen’s petition was signed by nearly 10,000 people, prompting Cuomo to push for a deal with lawmakers to end the practice in New York entirely.

But solving the problem in New York isn’t enough. While California became the first state to fully eliminate cash bail in 2018, until the rest of the nation follows suit, Usher says the justice system will continue to enforce “two social classes” in America. “If you have the ability to afford bail, then you’ll be let out,” he says. “But the young man or woman who doesn’t have the means to do so, they won’t. That’s just not fair, it’s not right.”