State Rep. Klint Kesto, chair of the Michigan House Law and Justice Committee, plans hearings to discuss “safe and secure rehabilitation” policies and to explore what other states have done to improve their approach to the criminal justice system. One thing Kesto and his committee need to examine is Michigan’s expensive, ineffective bail system.
The cash bail system was created to ensure that defendants would appear in court by requiring them to post a bond, either in the form of cash or other valuable property, before they were released.
However, over time the use of a cash bond has been used in ways that appear to be unfair to indigents who can’t always immediately afford to pay fines and court costs. Some judges have set a bond and put indigents in jail if they don’t appear at a show cause hearing to explain why they haven’t paid the fine. They then can remain behind bars until they post the bond, an amount often equal to the money they owe the court. The payment is then applied to the fine and court costs.
Changes like this have created a dual system that unfairly incarcerates accused indigents, who have no money, while allowing financially better-off defendants to quickly post bond and go free.
The new uses for cash bonds has resulted in a 20-percent increase in the number of people being held in our jails nationally. This increase is due to the huge increase in the number of people being held on bond awaiting trial and overcrowds jails.
At the end of 2015, 57,700 people were in Michigan’s Jails. A recent survey shows 41 percent were awaiting trial or arraignment. Of those, almost 75 percent were being held on misdemeanor charges.
So about 17,700 alleged misdemeanants were held on cash bonds while awaiting a hearing. Almost one-third of those defendants had bond of $500.00 or less. That cost Michigan taxpayers around $438,075 a day.
Going in Wrong Direction
If society were safer, that might be an acceptable cost, but how likely is it that a person held on a $100 bond is a danger to society? Not very, according to Barbara Hankey the director of Oakland County community corrections.
“The whole bond system is based on a person’s financial ability rather than on the potential risk that they pose to the community,” she says. Research supports Hankey’s opinion that locking up individuals for minor crimes increases the likelihood that they will commit a new crime. And the longer they are incarcerated the greater the chance that they will be rearrested.
Holding a low risk offender for as little as two to three days increases the risk they will commit a new crime by 39%. Holding them for more than 30 days raises that risk to 74 percent.
Or, as state Sen. Marty Knollenberg recently said: “Relapses into lives of crime are a major concern among lawmakers and constituents alike, the current system seems built not on rehabilitation, but on recidivism, leading to crowded jails that teach people how to be career criminals”.
In a cash bail system money, not public safety or court efficiency, is the determining factor as to whether someone is held in jail while awaiting trial. While most defendants are offered monetary bail, many simply cannot afford to pay the price for their freedom.
When a defendant can’t afford to post a bond and is then placed on an overcrowded court docket, a situation can arise where they spend more time in jail than the longest sentence they can receive.
This isn’t fair justice
So, some individuals presumed to be innocent, who can’t post bond, even for something like a misdemeanor shoplifting charge, plead guilty to time served just to go free rather than sit in jail awaiting trial.
Last week a federal judge in Houston overturned the county’s bail system for people charged with low-level crimes after finding that it “disproportionately affected indigent residents and violated the Constitution.”
New Jersey has virtually eliminated the cash bond system and New Orleans has a new bond system that releases people charged with ordinance violations without having to post a cash bail so that people who are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community aren’t held unnecessarily.
Michigan legislators need to reform our cash bond system.
This blog posting was first published in Deadline Detroit. Reprinted with permission.