Editorial: Bail reform could benefit taxpayers

The Detroit News
"Michigan should look to what's working in other states, and take steps to improve the bail system here."

Bail systems are designed to protect public safety and ensure criminal defendants appear in court for their trial. Recent research from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy suggests Michigan’s current system doesn’t accomplish either of these goals efficiently, while also unnecessarily burdening defendants and taxpayers.

Michigan should look to what’s working in other states and take steps to make improvements here.

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 before going free.

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 high. The result is that too many individuals are unnecessarily forced to sit in jail waiting for their trail.

And the costs of that detainment can be significant. In jail, defendants — who are presumed legally innocent — cannot work, pay rent, or care for their children. Michigan taxpayers foot the bill for the lock-up time.

About 41 percent of an estimated 16,350 jail inmates at the end of 2013 were awaiting trial in Michigan. At an average daily cost of $75 a day, that would amount to $500,000 a day, and more than $180 million a year. 

Michigan should adopt a results-based approach to bail.

In New Jersey, only 44 people posted money bail of more than 140,000 defendants who faced criminal charges in 2017. Releasing most defendants awaiting trial caused a 20 percent decrease in pre-trial jail populations and saved taxpayers millions.

There was no risk to the public. In fact, murders, robberies, and assaults decreased in the state that year.

New Jersey’s success is due in large measure to its use of case managers who help supervise defendants as they await trail. This means defendants can continue to live their lives while receiving support for issues that could impact their ability or willingness to appear in court such as substance abuse problems and employment pressures.

Michigan should weigh the cost of caseworkers against the cost of jailing those awaiting trial.

The state should also consider instituting a risk assessment questionnaire — as has been done in New Jersey and Indiana — to quantify statistical risk to society and likelihood of court appearance based on factors such as age, criminal history, and financial standing. With such a tool judges would be better informed when determining bail.

Keeping defendants locked up because they can’t come up with the cash to post bail creates an unequal justice system in which the poor are unduly burdened. Many misdemeanor defendants feel pressure to plead guilty because the actual sentence will require less time in jail than would be served waiting for a trail.

Those who can’t pay may also turn to additional crime to raise the bond money.

Solutions applied in other states save taxpayers money and better serve the causes of justice and public safety.

Michigan should adopt them.