10 Jun 2015

Money bail is coming under new scrutiny across the U.S. “It sets up a system where first there’s the punishment, and then there’s the opportunity to go to court for trial."

Dominick Torrence, who has lived in this city all his life, has a long rap sheet for dealing drugs but no history of violence. So when he was charged with disorderly conduct and rioting on April 28, a night of unrest after Freddie Gray was fatally injured in police custody, he was shocked to learn the amount he would need to make bail: $250,000, the same amount as two of the officers facing charges over Mr. Gray’s death.

Although a bail bondsman would charge only a fraction of that, normally 10 percent, for many defendants $25,000 is as impossible a sum as $250,000. “That’s something you get for murder or attempted murder,” Mr. Torrence, 29, said from Baltimore Central Booking. “You’re telling me I have to take food out of my kid’s mouth so I can get out of jail.” He spent a month in jail on charges that would later be dropped. 

Defense lawyers, scholars and even some judges say the high bail amounts set for some Baltimore protesters highlight a much broader problem with the nation’s money-based bail system. They say that system routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away.


  
“It sets up a system where first there’s the punishment, and then there’s the opportunity to go to court for trial,” said Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland state public defender.

Though money bail is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of jurisdictions, the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the face of recent research that questions its effectiveness, rising concerns about racial and income disparities in local courts, and a bipartisan effort to reduce the reliance on incarceration nationwide.

Colorado and New Jersey recently voted to revamp their bail systems, while in New Mexico last November, the State Supreme Court struck down a high bail it said had been set for the sole purpose of detaining the defendant.

This year, the Department of Justice weighed in on a civil rights lawsuit challenging bail amounts based on solely on the charge, calling them unconstitutional. In several states, including Connecticut, New York and Arizona, chief justices or politicians are calling for overhauls of the bail system.

The money bail system is supposed to curb the risk of flight by requiring defendants to post bond in exchange for freedom before trial. But critics say the system allows defendants with money to go free even if they are dangerous, while keeping low-risk poor people in jail unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.

For those who cannot afford to post bail, even a short stay in jail can quickly unravel lives and families. Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly poor, many living paycheck to paycheck, and detention can cause job losses and evictions. Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when cases are ultimately dropped. And people in jail who are not guilty routinely accept plea deals simply to gain their freedom, leaving them with permanent criminal records.

The United States leads the world in the number of pretrial detainees, according to a report by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the Department of Justice. An estimated half a million people are in the country’s jails on any given day because they cannot make bail. And even bail amounts much lower than those routinely seen in Baltimore can be prohibitive.

On a single day in New Jersey, one study found, more than 1,500 defendants were in jail because they could not come up with $2,500 or less. Mainstream groups including the American Bar Association recommend that money bail be used only as a last resort.

Yet judges continue to rely on money bail, calling it a flawed but crucial tool. Some say that commercial bail bondsmen are better than law enforcement agencies at getting defendants to court, and cost taxpayers less, and that the number of defendants who cannot afford bail is overstated. “Bail probably is the single most reliable assurance that somebody will show up,” said Judge Steve White, president of the Alliance of California Judges.

Read More:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/11/us/when-bail-is-out-of-defendants-reach-other-costs-mount.html

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