POLITICS
06/28/2017 02:19 pm ET

New Connecticut Law Will Keep People From Being Jailed Just Because They're Poor

Another state moves to reform money bail practices that have been challenged as unconstitutional.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Wednesday signed a bill into law that will overhaul the state’s bail system and keep poor defendants from serving unnecessary jail time before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay their way out.

House Bill 7044 received wide bipartisan support, passing by substantial margins in both chambers of the state legislature earlier this month.

In a signing statement, Malloy hailed the measure, saying it would address the “unintended consequences” of a pretrial justice system that has had adverse effects on public safety.

“The effect of a few days of detention for people who have been accused of misdemeanors and not released simply because they do not have the ability to pay can be devastating and far reaching ― possibly leading to the loss of employment and housing, which only exacerbates the kind of instability that can lead to a life of crime,” he said. “If we want to continue the progress we’ve made in lowering crime, reducing recidivism, and making our communities safer, then we must focus on what happens at the front-end of the justice system.”

The new law, which will take effect in July, bars courts from assigning money bail to misdemeanor defendants, except in cases involving family violence or in which an individual has been determined to be a flight risk, or likely to obstruct justice or harm themselves or someone else.

“What we know is that 75 percent of all criminal case filings are misdemeanors, so this bill will have a big impact on a lot of people,” Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a leading advocate for bail reform, told HuffPost. 

The measure also prohibits judges from setting cash-only bail, which requires defendants to pay the full bond amount to get out of jail. Defendants will now at least be guaranteed an option to secure release by paying a portion of their bail, including through commercial bail bondsmen, which in Connecticut typically charge a non-refundable premium of 7 to 10 percent of the total bail amount. Others will be released without paying anything, solely on the promise that they’ll return for future court dates.

Under the new law, any misdemeanor defendant who remains in jail because they can’t make bail must receive a bail review hearing within 14 days of their arraignment. The previous period was 30 days. At subsequent bail hearings, courts will now be required to remove financial conditions of release on these defendants, unless they can make a case that an individual is a flight risk or danger to the community.

The measure also authorizes a study, requested by the bail bonds industry, that will explore the practicality of imposing a surcharge on defendants who can afford bail, which would be used to pay bail for poorer defendants. The study must be completed by January 2018.

Connecticut’s successful reform effort comes a year after Malloy spearheaded a failed attempt to revamp bail practices in the state. That debate attracted vocal opposition from high-profile supporters of the commercial bail bonds industry, including one-time reality TV star Beth Chapman, who appeared alongside her husband Dog the Bounty Hunter in the eponymous A&E show and other programs.

A number of states and local jurisdictions have moved to amend their pretrial justice systems in recent years. They’ve been bolstered in part by civil rights groups that have successfully challenged the constitutionality of so-called “wealth-based bail practices,” which discriminate against the poor by allowing judges to assign bail without considering a defendant’s risk profile or ability to pay.

On any given day, nearly 450,000 people are held in jails across the U.S. before trial. Many face low-level charges, and are only locked up because they can’t afford to pay the bail that would secure their release. Taxpayers spend $14 billion annually ― approximately $38 million every day ― to house these individuals. Connecticut estimates its new law will save around $30 million over the next two fiscal years, primarily by reducing the jail population.

Proponents for bail reform argue that many of these people are stuck behind bars because they’re poor and could otherwise safely be released without requiring them to pay anything.

In court systems that have done away with money bail, judicial officers typically conduct assessments that consider a defendant’s personal, financial and criminal background to inform bail decisions. These reports can be used to set appropriate bail amounts, to deny bail, or to determine who should be released under the supervision of a pretrial services program and who can leave under their own recognizance.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded lawmakers for passing HB 7044, saying it would break the “one-size-fits-all approach to setting bail” which disproportionately affects people of color and the poor.

“Our Constitution promises equal treatment under the law, which means nobody should be in jail just because they are poor,” David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said in a statement after the bill’s passage. “Connecticut has come one step closer toward making the promises of our Constitution a reality.”

For Burdeen, of the Pretrial Justice Institute, the new law will help courts in Connecticut reduce the long-standing reliance on money bail. But that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect piece of legislation. Studying the feasibility of a bail surcharge ― a compromise given to the bail bonds industry ― is a “ridiculous idea” designed to “proliferate” the use of money bond and keep bail bondsmen in business, said Burdeen.

“Legislators are going to come back to this issue over and over again until they can produce good public policy,” she said. “And it takes a couple of sessions to break through the stranglehold that the [bail bond] industry has on legislatures.”

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