Guv Eyes Bail Reform

Paul Bass PhotoIf a judge sets a $20,000 bail for a relatively low-level crime, and the arrestee is poor, has no job, no credit card and no car—that person won’t make bail soon. And that person will wind up in state prison, not jail, because Connecticut has no county government system and therefore no jails.

Connecticut’s Malloy administration is on a mission to change that fact—and help thousands of lower-income people avoid getting stuck in jail for a minor arrest, said Mike Lawlor (at left in above photo), the governor’s undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy in the state and former co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. 

Over the next year, as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society law is phased in, the state will see a number of criminal justice issues addressed, including the state’s bail system, the way it works now and how it will change. The aim is to reduce the prison population, especially for those facing charges for low-level crimes.

Lucy Gellman PhotoLawlor (pictured in the WNHH studio) discussed bail and other criminal justice topics during the most recent episode of WNHH radio’s “Legal Eagle” program. He also discussed a new law that takes effect Oct. 1 reducing the possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, as well as the state’s juvenile justice system, mental health problems in the prisons, and wrongful convictions.

As part of its criminal-justice reform efforts, the state has received a MacArthur Foundation grant designed to reduce the state’s jail population for those held as pre-trial detainees. Lawlor explained that in most parts of the country there “are county jails and state prisons. In Connecticut we don’t have that. We don’t have county jails because we don’t have counties. Typically county jails have all of the pre-trial detainees, people being held on bond and people serving relatively short sentences, less than a year. We don’t have those jails.”

Instead these pre-trial detainees wind up in the state’s Department of Corrections. “For our purposes, we are defining the jail population and the pre-trial population about 3,500 right now. Another 1,000 are serving less than a year. So the goal of the MacArthur grant is to reduce that population significantly, especially the racially disparate impact so that there are fewer African- Americans and Latinos in jail. We are optimistic we can accomplish that goal,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor said that as it stands now, there are 20 jurisdictions, and each must have a plan by the end of the year. Connecticut is one of the jurisidictions; it received a $150,000 first-phase grant to come up with the plan to reduce the pre-trial jail population, especially people of color. The MacArthur Foundation will pick 10 to fund for two years at $2 million per year, he said.

“The bail system is a big part of this. There are a lot of people sitting in jail right now whose bail is less than $20,000,” he said. 

Lawlor explained that if you are arrested and bail is set between $10,000 and $15,000, and you had that 10 percent of that cash in the bank, “you are good to go. You bring it in and you are out.”

“But most people use bail bondsmen and typically they are charged between 7 and 10 percent.  What you need with a bail bondsman is to show you have credit and holdings, say a credit card, a bank account, a job, a car, a house.

“If, however, you have no money, no job, no place to live, no credit, no contacts, no family, then you are going to have a hard time. There are over 500 of those people in jail right now,” Lawlor said.

“So what we are trying to do is figure out why are they even being held on bail. If it were really a serious case, their bail would be a lot higher. That’s 500 right there. There’s another 500 where the bail is between $20,000 and $50,000. So you get about 1,000 people with relatively low bail who just can’t post it whereas 90 percent of the people out there can. So that is a big focus, and you will see the governor making some big proposals regarding it soon.”

Also on this episode of the Legal Eagle, New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse discussed Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis’s case. Davis was recently jailed for refusing a court order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. How much deference should religion get in the shaping of public policy? Greenhouse asked. She begins our program. Click on the audio file above to listen to the full show or find the program in iTunes or any podcast app under “WNHH Community Radio.” 

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 17, 2015  1:34pm

There was a judge name Bruce Wright. He said that it is unfair to let those who can afford high bail buy their way out of pre-trial imprisonment while sending to jail those who cannot produce the money. He also said If a defendant appears to have “roots in society”—generally defined as having family in the local area or holding a job—Wright says bail should be set in accordance with his financial means, even if this means no bail. “Bail is not a fine, it is not intended to serve as a punishment,” he says. “Bail is designed to insure appearance in court.” He further charges that lengthy pre-trial incarceration violates the spirit of the constitution. So the question I ask is why the judges on the bench today do the same thing.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 17, 2015  4:47pm

If bail is designed to insure appearance in court, the majority of it should be refunded once the court proceedings have finalized.

Otherwise it is both a fine and a punishment.

posted by: Morgan Barth on September 17, 2015  5:05pm

There are appear to be two major problems with setting prohibitively high bail for low-level and non-violent charges:

1) We penalize people and greatly disrupt their lives, livelihoods, family, community, etc…all before a conviction or a plea. There must be better fairer ways to use technology, tracking, lower bails or other collateral to ensure that people make court appearances (plus strong enforcement for those who don’t.)

2) Locking people up is the MOST EXPENSIVE way to run the pre-trial system. How much does this cost?  A year in state prison is what $30K, $50 $70K?  How does this compare to the cost of an electronic monitor and additional staff to monitor pre-trial / defendants?

Fixing this is the low hanging fruit in our incarceration crisis.

posted by: Nashstreeter on September 17, 2015  11:00pm

OK. It’s off topic, but Mike looks more like the nice guy he is with a little fur on his head. That Evil Dr. Sivana shiny head deal does not inspire confidence.