Calls to implement cash bail reform in Michigan continue

WAYNE COUNTY- The Federal Reserve reported that as of 2022, 68% of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency. This is troubling news for those who get arrested for non-violent misdemeanor crimes. In many cases, $400 is the bare minimum amount for cash bail.

What is cash bail?

Cash bail is the process of paying money or leveraging assets after an arrest for one’s freedom while awaiting further court proceedings or a trial. At the time of a release determination, an individual is presumed innocent. In most cases, the bail amount varies depending on the alleged offense.

After arrest, one has the legal right of a release through a bail bond at a reasonable price. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution protects people from excessive bail.

The objective of bail is to ensure the defendant’s attendance at their trial and safeguard the public from harm instead of punishing the offender for a suspected crime.

The cost of bail varies depending on the alleged crime. One of the most common traffic offenses, drinking and driving can come with costly bail. For first-time offenders, it can range anywhere between $500 and $2,500. Second-time perpetrators can expect a bail amount even higher than that. If cash bail is set, those with money or assets can post the determined amount and await their court dates free from jail.

Why cash bail disproportionately affects Michiganders

Unfortunately, a person who cannot afford bail has less choices. The worst-case scenario being the person remains incarcerated for the duration of the pretrial process, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. While awaiting trial behind bars, one risks losing custody of one’s children, one’s job, and one’s housing.

According to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO), 1.4 million Michiganders are living below the poverty line while 4.3 million are at risk of not making ends meet.  In other terms, even if accused of the lowest-level misdemeanor crime where a minimal bond is required, many Michiganders would be unable to post this amount.

While there’s a belief that overhauling cash bail leads to a decrease in public safety, the data has shown otherwise.

Washington D.C., a jurisdiction that has eliminated the use of monetary bail is proof that defendants are likely to return for scheduled court appearances without posting bond. Of all the defendants who were released without bail on non-violent crimes, 90 percent of them returned to their scheduled court dates.

Cash bail reform on the rise in Michigan

In 2020, the Joint Task Force produced a lengthy report recommending several critical changes to Michigan’s pretrial incarceration system.

In the wake of consistent legislative inaction, organizations like the ACLU have been fighting for reform, filing a lawsuit in 2019 against Wayne County’s 36th District Court for “discriminating against low-income people because they were unable to post bail.”

On any given day in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, the nation’s Blackest city, nearly three-quarters of those jailed are Black, a proportion much higher than their share of the population.

The 36th District Court responded by agreeing to work with the ACLU. The agreement requires the court to reform bail practices, including limiting its ability to impose unaffordable bail on defendants. The reform practices do not bar judges from imposing cash bail, especially if defendants are deemed a flight risk or a danger to the public.

However, all Detroit judges and magistrates must say on the record how imposing bail would protect the community or prevent a failure to appear. Judges must also make an on-the-record determination as to how much a defendant can afford to pay.

 Advocates say it could be a model for court systems nationwide, where race and wealth are significant factors in the administration of justice. The terms of the landmark settlement agreement reached in the case in 2022 puts neighboring jurisdictions who engage in similar practices on notice, while signaling the need for statewide bail reform.

The ACLU has filed seven other lawsuits against sheriffs and judges that challenge money bail systems in Canadian County, Oklahoma; Dallas; Galveston, Texas; Alamance County, North Carolina; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Cullman County, Alabama; and Randolph County, Alabama.

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