Editorial: Find fix for broken bail system
Michigan's bail system causes the poor and minorities to sit in jail awaiting trial, while those with enough financial resources walk free and await trial at home. This is not a fair system.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has begun to fight for reform, joining a growing number of groups and lawmakers pushing for change.
The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit against magistrates who preside over arraignments, claiming the state’s bail system is broken and unduly punishes both the poor and minorities at Detroit's 36th District Court.
A judge now has three options for handling a defendant awaiting trial: deny bond and keep him or her locked up; release the defendant on personal recognizance; or issue conditional release in which a defendant must provide collateral (bail) before going free.
When the defendants who have posted bail show up at trial, they get their money back.
Bail can only be denied outright if there is proof that the accused is guilty, and if bail is set, it must not be excessive.
But because judges don’t know the financial standing of the defendant, bail is often too costly. The result is that too many individuals are unnecessarily forced to sit in jail waiting their trial.
Most arraignments (the judicial step when bail is set) at the 36th District Court are conducted over teleconference between the Detroit Detention Center and the court, with few defendants having a lawyer to help them combat excessive bail, which the ACLU contends violates the constitutional right to counsel.
According to a recent study of a five-day period of 252 arrangements at the 36th District Court, 85 percent of defendants without lawyers received bail and were not released on personal recognizance.
About 41 percent of an estimated 16,350 jail inmates at the end of 2013 were awaiting trial in Michigan, and the Wayne County Jail system alone houses 1,600 individuals each night, 62 percent of whom are pre-trial detainees, according to Vera Incarceration Trends.
Keeping that number of people jailed, many of whom pose little flight risk, is inexcusable.
Too much of our jail system's resources are being spent on people who have not even been convicted of a crime.
That’s costly to taxpayers and keeps defendants from continuing to work and support their families while they await trial.
While this lawsuit is being settled, the Michigan Legislature should do its part to reform the state's bail system.
Bipartisan legislation was put forward in March in both the House and Senate which would prohibit judges from basing cash bail on pre-established amounts, likely causing rates of defendants released while awaiting trial to rise.
Lawmakers should also consider legislation that would help courts implement caseworkers to help ensure defendants show up for their trial date, as well as instituting a pre-arraignment risk assessment questionnaire to better inform the magistrate of the defendant's flight risk and ability to post bail.
With more information and communication, the state's judicial system could ensure defendants make it to trial while avoiding the mass lockup of those who can't pay for their freedom.