Category Archives: bail reform

Bail reform emanates from MA High court

Last month, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that judges must take into account a defendant’s financial resources when setting bail. The original intent of bail was to be sure a defendant returned to court, but in today’s environment, where approximately 97 percent of criminal cases are settled with plea bargain agreements, the setting of bail that people cannot pay, serves to guarantee more convictions.

When one is incarcerated pretrial, one is more likely to accept a plea, and a criminal conviction, in order to go home.

It is unclear what the impact will be for this ruling. The practice of bail will continue, and the court can use it when their is a flight risk.  Dangerousness hearings are also part of Massachusetts law, so that defendants deemed a danger to the public can be retained pretrial.  At this time the Mass Bail Fund is meeting with others to determine what kind of monitoring can be done to determine compliance with the new ruling.

See more here about the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling.

–Submitted by Louellyn Lambros of Scituate, an EMIT CORE member.

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It’s time for justice reform in Mass.

A poll out today from the policy group Mass INC is encouraging with 2-1 support for ending the long Mandatory Minimum sentences on drug convictions and for other reforms on CORI reform, felony theft threshold, reducing or ending fines and fees on ex-prisoners

WHEN IT COMES TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM, VOTERS WANT MORE — At least according to a new poll out this morning from MassINC Polling Group, which finds a bipartisan support for getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences and pursuing second chance reforms by a 2-1 margin.

Some 53 percent of voters believe incarceration currently does more harm than good – potentially opening the door for more aggressive reforms than are in the current criminal justice reform bill rolled out by Gov. Charlie Baker in February and backed by state House Speaker Robert DeLeo. State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who supports the proposal, has also stated he wants to go further than Baker’s bill to delve into sentencing policy and bail practices – things this poll indicates the public has more of an appetite to pursue.

The poll also reveals bipartisan interest in reform, which could provide cover for both chambers in the legislature to pursue more progressive policies, like getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences and an emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention of future crimes – two things specifically favored on both sides of the aisle. “You see an appetite for changing things around, for trying something new and changing the realities of the criminal justice system of Massachusetts,” MassINC Polling Group President Steve Koczela told POLITICO. – Check out the toplines. Click on “Check out the toplines” for details of the  question and responses in the poll.

It’s important to organize meetings, calls, and letters to both your state representatives and senators that you support criminal justice reform and specifically name what that includes such as Ending Mandatory Minimum’s drug convictions and returning sentences to Judges, CORI Reform including reducing the number of years employers can see CORI’s to 7 years on felonies and 3 years on misdemeanors, reducing ending fines and fees like the $65 a month fee those on probation must pay, raising the threshold for what’s a felony from the 30 year old $250 level up to $1500, Diversion to Treatment, Juvenile Expungement and Raising the Age of Juvenile Court coverage.

–Thanks to Lew Finfer and Jobs not Jails for this update. Please submit YOUR post for this blog to emit.susan@gmail.com.

MA – follow suit & eliminate cash bail

NEW YORK TIMES March 9, 2017.

HOUSTON — It was an awkward scene for officials of Harris County, Texas, who are defending themselves in federal court against a claim that they keep poor defendants locked up just because they cannot afford bail.

On Wednesday a judge and the county sheriff testified for the other side.

“When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was elected after the case was filed.

Both the judge and the sheriff are defendants in the suit. Their defections were yet another sign of the growing skepticism over the fairness of the long-used system of money bail, especially when it is applied to those who cannot afford it.

The class-action lawsuit contends that on any given night, several hundred people are in the Harris County jail on misdemeanor charges solely because they cannot make bail. If defendants with bail bond amounts of $500 or less had simply been released, the county would have saved $20 million over six years, according to a “very conservative” estimate by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania.

The practice of setting money bail, particularly for low-level offenses, has come under heavy criticism, and states like New Jersey and Maryland have sharply curtailed its use in recent months. A growing body of evidence shows that even a brief detention before trial can disrupt lives and livelihoods, make case outcomes worse and increase the likelihood that the defendant will commit future crimes. Putting a price on pretrial liberty can allow those with money to go free even if they are dangerous, and keep the poor in jail even if they are not.

Civil rights lawyers have mounted a series of lawsuits against bail practices like those in Harris County, where people without ready money can spend up to four days in jail before getting a chance to even contest their bond amount. Almost a dozen similar cases across the country have been settled with significant changes to the local bail system.

But two of the biggest challenges, in Houston and San Francisco, are still in play. And in both places, key officials have sided with the bail critics.

In San Francisco, the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, and the state attorney general at the time, Kamala Harris, declined to defend against the lawsuit, saying the bail system was unfair. In Houston the district attorney, Kim Ogg, weighed in with an impassioned friend-of-the-court brief, writing, “It makes no sense to spend public funds to house misdemeanor offenders in a high-security penal facility when the crimes themselves may not merit jail time.” Like Sheriff Gonzalez, Ms. Ogg is newly elected.

Those left to defend the system have had a lonely uphill fight. James Munisteri, a private lawyer hired by Harris County, faced calls for his removal after he told the court at an earlier hearing that misdemeanor defendants might be in jail not because they couldn’t afford to post bond, but because they “want” to be there. “If it’s a cold week,” he added.

The judge, Lee H. Rosenthal of Federal District Court, was skeptical of that contention, calling it “uncomfortably reminiscent of the historical argument that used to be made that people enjoyed slavery, because they were afraid of the alternative.”

The case was filed last May on behalf of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, who was arrested on charges of driving with an invalid license. She spent over two days in jail because she couldn’t afford to pay her $2,500 bond. Civil Rights Corps, the organization whose director, Alec Karakatsanis, has led the legal attacks on unaffordable bail across the country, joined with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a nonprofit legal defense organization, and Susman Godfrey, a law firm, to bring the case.

So far, the county has spent $1.2 million on outside lawyers to defend itself.

The Supreme Court has held that liberty before trial should be the norm, and that bail conditions must be set based on the individual’s circumstances. Bail is not meant to be punitive; it is intended simply to ensure that defendants return to court. Texas law requires consideration of “the ability to make bail.”

But the videos made it clear that bail was routinely set with no inquiry into defendants’ ability to pay — or with the full knowledge that they could not. When suspects are first booked, their bail is set using a fee schedule based on the charge and on criminal history. At the probable cause hearing, where typically no lawyer is present, the hearing officer can raise or lower the bond, or grant a personal bond, which allows the defendant to go without an upfront payment.

The county argued that it began reforming its pretrial release system before the lawsuit was filed. It recently issued guidelines recommending the use of personal bonds for people accused of 12 low-level misdemeanors. Beginning on July 1, it plans to make public defenders available at the probable cause hearing. The bail fee schedule will disappear, to be replaced by a risk assessment, a more sophisticated method of determining an arrestee’s likelihood of fleeing or of committing a new crime.

Any injunction striking down parts of its pretrial release system would hamper these ongoing reforms, county lawyers argued. They also contended that a court order would tie judges’ hands, reducing their discretion and potentially allowing dangerous detainees back onto the streets. “There are a category of high-risk detainees who should not be released,” Melissa Lynn Spinks, a lawyer representing the county, said.

Besides the sheriff, another star witness for the plaintiffs was Darrell Jordan, elected as a Harris County criminal court judge last November. At first, Mr. Jordan said, he followed the bail practices of his 15 fellow judges. But he radically changed his approach after learning of research showing that locking people up makes them more likely to be repeat offenders.

Mr. Jordan began releasing nearly all defendants, either on a personal bond or on one they could afford. .

A homeless man who recently came before Mr. Jordan was prepared to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge just to gain release, but changed his mind when he realized that the judge was willing to let him out of jail immediately.

”He had never heard of a personal bond,” the judge remembered. “He started crying when I told him he could go home.”

Send holiday REFORM greetings

EMIT doesn’t ask for money [we are all-volunteer] during the holidays. Instead, all year round, we ask for a thin slice of your time to add to the chorus in the wave of justice & corrections systems reform in Massachusetts.
With the CSG report due out imminently, take a minute to contact Gov. Charlie Baker and/or Speaker Robert DeLeo and encourage them to adopt  justice reinvestment — which means investing in jobs, education, job training and support for small business startups in urban communities hardest hit by mass incarceration.
The theory is to roll over money saved by fewer people behind bars and use it productively to start a new life for formerly incarcerated people.
See more info here in this Globe story from yesterday on the outdated state of our justice and corrections systems.  Here’s Speaker DeLeo’s and Gov. Baker’s contact info. My sample email follows- feel free to copy and paste and edit in your correspondence.
Dear Speaker DeLeo:
During this time of hope and celebration, I urge you to think of the 10,000 people in free public housing in our state’s prisons and jails. 
We are not the worst offender in the Union for lack of justice, however, there are MANY more reforms possible than covered by the CSG. I urge you to go further and rollover the money saved by incarcerating fewer people, getting rid of the bail system that favors the rich and guilty, and reinvesting it in urban communities hardest hit by incarceration. Please do everything in your power to adopt justice re-investment in the coming legislative session.
THANKS AND Happy Holidays from the EMIT team.

UUCM speaker tackles mass incarcerations

This story ran in the Marblehead Wicked Local Paper. Meghann Perry and I are available to speak, fill the pulpit, set up a table to share solutions on what voters in Massachusetts can do to volunteer in prison or jail and to reform our justice and corrections systems.

Proponents of justice system reform believe that drug addiction should be treated as a health problem and not a crime, and that over-incarceration of the poor, mostly black males, is the civil rights issue of our time.”Reform takes baby steps and it takes a lot of people working together to make it happen,” said Susan Tordella, co-founder of End Mass Incarceration Together (EMIT), a task force of the Unitarian Universalist Church Mass Action Network. “It’s about breaking down barriers and

Source: UUCM speaker tackles mass incarcerations

CSG plugs along toward proposing reforms

In response to activists requests for justice and corrections systems reform and a plethora of bills before the state Legislature in the last 2015-16 term, Gov. Baker convened a 25- member panel of electeds and state bureaucrats. They have partnered with the Council of State Governments [CSG] to propose an omnibus bill [a multi-faced reform bill] in Jan. 2017.  What follows is an update on that process of monthly meetings from the State House News Servce, summarizing activity and research by the CSG, a neutral non-profit that advises state governments on best-practices.

By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 20, 2016…..Discussions of recidivism and community supervision slated for this fall are among the final steps in a process policymakers hope will result in reforms to the state’s criminal justice system.

After months studying recidivism trends, drivers of incarceration and other elements of criminal justice in Massachusetts, researchers from the Council on State Governments Justice Center plan to gather with a 25-member working group in December to go over final policy recommendations.

Those recommendations would then become the basis for legislation expected to be filed in January.

The Justice Center’s review launched after Gov. Charlie Baker, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo reached out in August 2015, requesting support in an effort to study the system and institute new data-driven and cost-effective practices.

In a letter to center staff, the four officials expressed hope that the the analysis would help them “better understand how we can further reduce recidivism and enable successful re-entry, and whether we can further reduce our prison and jail populations through early release programs while ensuring appropriate punishment and preserving public safety.”

Baker, Gants, Rosenberg, DeLeo and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito sit on a steering committee guiding the development of policy options.

The working group, which includes representatives from law enforcement, legal services, the judiciary, Legislature and executive branch, has held three public meetings so far, during which members have offered their reactions and suggestions to data presented by Justice Center researchers.

Three more meetings are planned for rest of the year, building towards a policy discussion before the start of the new legislative session in January.

The first, tentatively scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 20, will explore prisoner release, reentry and recidivism, according to Justice Center spokesman Robert Busweiler.

A November meeting focused on community supervision will be followed by the December policy framework discussion, Busweiler said. Dates for those meetings have not yet been set.

Several criminal justice reform efforts this session stalled despite pushes from advocates and interest groups.

A series of Senate-backed bills — creating a medical parole program for terminally ill inmates (S 2433); raising the felony larceny threshold from $250 to $1,500 (S 2176); and a package of juvenile justice reforms including expungement of certain juvenile misdemeanor records (S 2176) — were not taken up in the House before the July 31 end of formal sessions and have remained before the House Ways and Means Committee.

New laws passed this session ended automatic driver’s licenses suspensions for most drug crimes unrelated to motor vehicles; banned the practice of sending women civilly committed for addiction treatment to a state prison in Framingham; and increased the penalties for trafficking of the opiate fentanyl.

Lawmakers have been awaiting the findings of the outside review before tackling other major justice system reforms.

Advocates, too, are watching with interest as the process enters its final months. The Jobs Not Jails Coalition, which rallied on Beacon Hill repeatedly last year in support of sentencing legislation and other reforms, is now working to determine its criminal justice priorities.

The coalition hopes to have its priorities finalized in October, and will then bring them to the steering committee of “decision makers” working with the researchers, said Lew Finfer, a coalition member and director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

“There’s definitely a lot of things we think about,” Finfer said. He said potential reforms could be viewed through “three frameworks” — changes that would affect people before they are incarcerated, while they are in prison, and after release.

If new laws do result from the recommendations, Justice Center staff will then work with policymakers for two to three years, developing implementation plans, providing progress reports, and testifying before relevant committees. According to a January overview of the project, the state will be able to apply for federal grants to meet “important one-time implementation needs, such as information technology upgrades and ongoing quality assurance outcomes.”

Justice Center staff also plan to help state officials identify metrics and monitoring strategies to gauge the impact of new policies on crime, incarceration and recidivism.

END
09/20/2016

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Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

By ALYSIA SANTO

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. TheConnecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.