Worthy calls cash bail reforms for Detroit's 36th District Court 'a bridge too far'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — While 36th District Court and American Civil Liberties Union officials Tuesday lauded an agreement to eliminate cash bonds during almost all arraignments, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the plan is "a bridge too far."

The ACLU of Michigan and Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling in 2019 filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Detroit's 36th District Court on behalf of seven plaintiffs. The suit claimed the court's bail system was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor people and minorities "by locking them up because they cannot afford to pay while allowing those who have money to go free."

Under Tuesday's settlement, 36th District Court judges and magistrates will release defendants by default, no matter the charges, unless there's a specific flight or safety risk, said Chief 36th District Judge William McConico during a Tuesday news conference outside the courthouse in downtown Detroit.

Chief 36th District Court Judge William McConico said during a Tuesday press conference in Detroit the 36th District Court judges and magistrates will release defendants by default, unless there's a specific flight or safety risk under a lawsuit settlement reached with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and its plaintiffs.

"No longer will being poor result in disparate justice," McConico said. "This agreement preserves judicial discretion while ensuring that judges are exercising that discretion lawfully and wisely."

The agreement stipulates that defendants will not be detained unless a judge or magistrate reviews evidence and determines the release would pose a flight risk or danger to the public, the chief judge said.

When asked how that differs from the current system, in which judges and magistrates during arraignments already are charged with determining whether a defendant poses a flight or safety risk, McConico said the revamped rules will require court officials to review a list of items to check before ruling.

Worthy released a statement Tuesday criticizing the settlement.

“I have repeatedly said that I have no issue with no cash bond for lower-level non-violent offenses, traffic offenses excluding drunk driving and domestic violence, civil infractions  and ordinance violations," Worthy said. "It is unfortunate that WCPO was not part of the process when 36th District Court and the ACLU were discussing this.

"The agreement is a bridge too far when it comes to violent crime," she said. "We have recently seen disturbing results when defendants with violent crimes are given inappropriate bonds. I am not at all convinced this is the solution for serious felonies.”

Detroit police spokesman Rudy Harper said police officials have not had a chance to read the agreement, which is more than 200 pages. 

"It would be premature to comment on the agreement until a later date," Harper said in a statement. "It is important, however, that appropriate bonds are fixed for individuals who commit serious offenses to better ensure public safety."

Controversial bond rulings

There have been multiple recent cases of law enforcement officials denouncing judges' bond rulings, including the May decision by visiting Wayne Circuit Judge Michael Hathaway to remove the tether from Teddy Valentino Davis, after Davis had violated his tether conditions multiple times, including allegedly shooting up a west-side house.

McConico said, "No system is perfect," but he added that the court will monitor the bond decisions of judges and magistrates and issue regular reports to the public.

"Yes, there have been mistakes, but even high bonds are no guarantee," the judge said. "There was just a case in Harper Woods where a man was given $10,000 bond and still allegedly committed a heinous offense."

McConico was referring to an incident Sunday in which a man allegedly fatally stabbed his father and ex-girlfriend after posting 10% of a $100,000 bond. The suspect held off police for hours inside his home until he was arrested.

"I gave a $100,000 cash bond years ago and (the defendant) got out and committed a crime," McConico said. "So there's nothing foolproof. But we put in as many safeguards as possible.

"There are multiple stages; if a magistrate gives a bond, a redetermination hearing can be held with 72 hours," he said. "Then, it can be addressed during the felony hearing, and at any stage in the process."

Detroit resident Sherell Dodson said she has mixed feelings about the reforms.

"I think they're already letting too many dangerous people out on bond," said the 38-year-old westside resident. But she added that she supports bond reform for nonviolent offenses.

"I know someone who had to sit in jail for jaywalking," Dodson said. "Something like that's crazy. If someone hasn't committed a serious crime, I don't have a problem with (the new court rules). But they don't need to keep letting these violent criminals out."

Tommy Cieszkowski, 66, said he was assaulted near his Corktown home last year — "and the guy was back on the street the very next day," he said. "Our criminal justice system is already messed up, and things are dangerous enough as it is without letting even more people out on bond."

Details of agreement

The agreement will be in place from two to five years, depending on how long it takes to get the changes implemented, said the ACLU of Michigan's senior staff attorney Phil Mayor. The court will provide regular progress reports, he said.

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington said the agreement will bring "relief" to citizens and his deputies.

"This will give some relief to the citizens who wind up spending too much time in jail simply because they can't pay," Washington said. He added that his deputies "are burdened with processing individuals who don't pose a public safety or flight risk. (The agreement) means we can also devote those resources to other needs in our 43 cities and townships."

Among the tenets of the lawsuit agreement: 

  • All defendants will be entitled to court-appointed counsel at arraignment. Often, officials said, court-appointed attorneys join cases long after the defendant was arraigned.
  • "Defendants who miss a hearing for the first time for most misdemeanor cases will automatically have their hearing rescheduled, instead of having a warrant issued for their arrest," the ACLU said in a release.
  • "The court will release a defendant without cash bail on a personal recognizance bond, with minimal conditions, unless there is evidence that the person is a flight risk or danger to the public," the release said.
  • "If there is evidence that a defendant is a flight risk or danger, the court will consider non-cash conditions, such as protective orders or reporting to probation," the ACLU said.
  • Defendants who is at 200% of federal poverty guidelines — an income of $55,500 or less for a family of four — will automatically be presumed by the court to be unable to afford bail.

"The agreement also creates a Partnership Working Group that includes a 36th District Court judge, the court’s general counsel and plaintiffs’ counsel," the release said. "The group expects release rates for people released without cash bail, or with bail they can afford, within 24 hours of arraignment."

The ACLU's Mayor said Tuesday: "The cash bail system has devastating consequences on communities, particularly communities of color. Today’s agreement will ensure people in Detroit will remain at home with their families, in their jobs, and in their communities where they belong while they wait for their day in court."

Mayor added that other lawsuits could be brought against other unspecified district courts in Michigan if similar reforms aren't enacted. 

Former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday lauded Michigan's 36th District Court officials for reaching a lawsuit settlement on cash bond rules, saying it "should be a model for other jurisdictions across the country.”

One of the lawsuit plaintiffs, Starmanie Jackson, was present at Tuesday's press conference holding a baby girl, although she didn't speak. Mayor read aloud her statement, which also was posted on YouTube.

"For me, the issue of a person’s freedom is so important, I named my newborn daughter Liberty," the statement said.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder added: "This is how our criminal justice system should work, and I commend the 36th District Court for reaching this important agreement. It can, and should be, a model for other jurisdictions across the country.” 

Northwest Detroit resident Eileen Wilson said she hopes the program is a success.

"As long as the judges are careful about who they're letting out, and not releasing violent people, I'm okay with it," said Wilson, 75. "But I hope it works, because there's way too much going on with this violence right now. I can't take any more."


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN