The principle that defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty stands at the core of the U.S. criminal justice system. Yet in jails around the country, hundreds of thousands of people whose guilt has yet to be determined in a court of law are behind bars, many of them simply because they can't afford bail.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) is looking to address this with reforms to a state bail system that currently takes a disproportionate toll on poor and minority defendants, often forcing them to languish in jail while they await trial on minor charges.
At a news conference this week, Malloy unveiled a proposal to eliminate bail for low-risk defendants facing charges for nonviolent misdemeanors, instead allowing them to go on a promise to appear in court.
The governor also outlined changes to the bond system, which enables defendants who can't afford bail to pay a percentage of the bail amount, typically through bail bondsmen who charge them a nonrefundable fee to guarantee their appearance in court. Under the new plan, defendants offered bond as a condition for their release could pay a 10 percent cash deposit directly to the court and get it back when they return for trial, like they would if they had paid bail.
"Bail is meant to ensure that the accused appears in court, not to extend our historically flawed system of permanent punishment," Malloy said.
The governor said 557 people now in pretrial detention in Connecticut face bail of $20,000 or less -- meaning that for many of them, a cash deposit of a few hundred dollars is the difference between temporary freedom and weeks in lockup awaiting trial. Around 400 of those defendants are facing misdemeanor charges, the CT Mirror reports, and Malloy said many of them faced difficult situations before they were arrested and incarcerated.
"These are individuals who are often drug-addicted, mentally ill or just plain poor who have been charged with minor [offenses]," he said. "If a judge had identified them as risky, bond would have been set far higher."
Even temporary incarceration can put defendants in difficult financial straits and can lead them to lose their employment, housing, family or other support networks, Malloy said.
Bail reform has recently become a significant part of the criminal justice debate as lawmakers discuss how to shrink the nation's bloated prison population. A report on mass incarceration by the Prison Policy Initiative last year found that 646,000 of the nation's more than 2.3 million incarcerated individuals were being housed at local jails. Of those, 451,000 had not been convicted, and many were awaiting trial for drug and public order offenses.
In August, The New York Times reported that in New York City courts, which tend to set bail significantly lower than the national average, only 1 in 10 defendants has the money to pay at arraignment. The system ends up pushing around 45,000 people into the city's jails each year, often because they can't come up with a few hundred dollars. This leads many to plead guilty regardless of their innocence, because they know they'll serve time either way if they can't afford to pay bail before their trial.
Bail is just one part of Malloy's criminal justice reform plan, which he's dubbed "Second Chance 2.0" and plans to introduce in further detail to state lawmakers next week. He also proposes to raise the youthful offender age, which would channel all defendants under the age of 21 into the juvenile justice system and expand the program that allows younger offenders to get their records expunged after completing their sentences.
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