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Bail bond industry fights back against reform

Bail bond industry fights back against reform

On July 17th, a judge in Chicago ruled that courts there could no longer hold people in jail on bail simply because they could not afford it. This is the latest in a series of judicial and legislative actions designed to reform the cash bail system that has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of abusive court practices uncovered in Ferguson, MO and following the death of Kalief Browder in New York City.

Ferguson was just one of many cities that has been found to use cash bail to pressure defendants into agreeing to plea deals rather than taking their cases to court. Defendants often spent several days in jail on cases where incarceration for an actual conviction was highly unlikely. According to an investigation by The Atlantic, almost two-thirds of people in local jails are awaiting trial, and a full 90% of them are there because they cannot afford bail.

In the case of Kalief Browder, the results turned out to be fatal. Browder was held for three years based on an unsupported accusation that he stole a backpack. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement as a juvenile. After years of trying to pressure him into a plea deal, the Bronx DA’s office admitted that they had no case. Shortly after his release he killed himself, having never recovered from the traumas of his abuse in jail.

Across the country advocates are pushing for reforms to the bail system through legislative changes, judicial rulings, and local DA races. Their ability to change the conversation on bail is epitomized in a statement released to officials across the country by former Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, “Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”

In January a new law took effect in New Jersey eliminating their cash bail system. Defendants are instead subjected to intensive community supervision. Washington, DC eliminated its cash bail system in the early 90’s. Currently, over 91 percent of defendants show up for trial, creating massive savings in jail costs.

These reforms, however, have not gone unchallenged by the commercial bail bond industry which makes millions every year loaning money to people to cover their bail. These bonds usually cost defendants 10 percent of the bail amount — whether or not they show up in court. This means that poor people either languish in jail in conditions that make them more likely to accept unfavorable or even false plea deals, or pay significant fees to bail bond companies.

Nationally, the bail bond industry has been mobilizing. At the local level, bail bond companies have been pouring cash into legislative and DA races to try to block or at least temper reforms that would reduce their role.

In Maryland, lawmakers and judges have been pushing for the elimination of cash bail. According to Common Cause MD, the bail bond industry responded by pouring $87,000 into the pockets of state legislators and the governor. They were successful in blocking a total ban but were unable to stop a major reduction of cash bail. According to the Washington Post, between 2011 and 2014, bail bond groups gave $168,000 to local politicians in Maryland and $115,000 to those in California. State politicians in have received $78,000 at the state level. The former DA of Dallas County alone received $70,000.

In New Mexico, the bail bond industry spent tens of thousands to change an anti-cash bail constitutional amendment into a version that preserves its central role.

Cash bail has been a central feature in the current District Attorney race on Brooklyn. All of the major candidates have expressed concerns about the existing system. Over half of the people in jail while awaiting trial in New York City are there because they can’t afford their bail.

Candidate Marc Fliedner has called for eliminating cash bail in any case where the DA’s office is unlikely to seek jail time for the underlying offense. Another candidate, Anne Swern, has said that she would eliminate cash bail for all but a handful of misdemeanor cases. The current DA, Eric Gonzalez, has been more moderate in his position stating that he wants to reduce reliance on cash bail for most misdemeanors, but allow DAs to request it if they have specific public safety concerns.

Gonzalez is also the only candidate taking money from the bail bond industry. According to recent campaign finance filings, he has received at least $7,750 directly from two major bail bond companies, Empire Bail Bonds and IC bail bonds. Empire also hosted a major fundraising event, the results of which are not known. Gonzalez’s opponent, Marc Fliedner, was quoted as saying “investment [by bail bond companies] in Gonzalez’s campaign makes his protestations that he wants to change the system ring entirely false.” Candidates Vincent Gentile and Anne Swern also expressed concerns about the seeming contradictions of accepting this money.

Bail reform is a central element of any program to reduce incarceration rates, especially in local jails. It also represents a basic social justice issue as the burdens of the current system rest overwhelmingly on the poor. If politicians are serious about these reforms they need to reject campaign contributions from the bail industry.

Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He is the author of the forthcoming “The End of Policing” and “City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.” The views and opinions expressed in this article are Professor Vitale’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Execution policy on trial in Arizona as journalists seek transparency

Execution policy on trial in Arizona as journalists seek transparency

On July 23, 2014, Joseph Rudolph Wood was supposed to be executed in a quick and painless way—injected once with 50mg of midazolam and 50mg of hydromorphone. Instead, he suffered through a lethal injection protocol that lasted 117 minutes, snorting and gasping for air as he was injected with 15 doses of the drugs.

Following news of Wood’s botched execution, multiple news organizations — including the Guardian and Associated Press — filed a lawsuit to make Arizona’s execution protocol more transparent. According to the lawsuit, the public is entitled to information about death penalty protocol under the First Amendment. Absent some modicum of transparency, it “cannot meaningfully debate the propriety of lethal injection executions if it is denied access to this essential information about how individuals are being put to death by the state.” On Tuesday, the publications finally got their day in court, arguing that the state must reveal the source of its lethal injection drugs and identify executioners’ qualifications.

The trial is the latest in a series of efforts by journalists to understand how states are procuring and administering their lethal injection drugs, following a spate of botched executions.

Drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) were previously manufactured in Europe and sold to the U.S., but international suppliers have stopped providing them for moral reasons in recent years. As a result, states are scrambling to find alternative suppliers and drugs (like the anesthetic midazolam), even turning to unregulated compounding pharmacies that aren’t approved by the FDA. Pharmacists and former state attorneys general have argued that midazolam in particular is not an adequate substance to render a person unconscious, yet states are still using it as a sedative in the lethal injection process. Doctors and nurses are also prevented from participating in death penalty procedures by the country’s largest medical associations.

In Arizona, it was clear that Wood’s executioners lacked expertise and relied on a drug that doesn’t have the backing of the medical community.

“The department said one dose of this drug combination would be enough to kill a prisoner, and it was not enough,” his attorney, Dale Baich, said in 2014. “Under the Arizona protocol, if the prisoner remains conscious, a backup set of drugs can be administered, but there’s nothing in the protocol that permits fourteen additional doses to be administered when the prisoner is unconscious.”

Changes have been made to Arizona’s execution method since Wood’s death. Via camera, reporters are now allowed to watch prisoners as they enter the execution room, in addition to watching as catheters are attached to people’s bodies. A camera must also be fixated on the executioners’ control board. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) is now supposed to use thiopental or pentobarbital, both of which the state has difficulty procuring. But ADOC policy authorizes its director to alter the lethal injection policy, and cameras can be turned off “in the event of a legitimate penological objective.”

Tuesday’s trial indicates that Arizona’s death penalty is still shrouded in secrecy. It is now up to a judge to decide if the public has a right to know more about the process.

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St. Louis prosecutor silent as prisoners suffer in sweltering hot jail

St. Louis prosecutor silent as prisoners suffer in sweltering hot jail

Protesters railing against extreme heat in one of St. Louis’ abuse-plagued jails were pepper-sprayed by police clad in riot gear last Friday and Saturday, as they called on city officials to shut down the dangerous facility. They say inmates at the Medium Security Institution, nicknamed the “Workhouse,” are living in cells with no air conditioning despite temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.

Concerned with the safety and well-being of more than 750 people housed in the Workhouse and awaiting trial, approximately 150 people converged on the jail to voice concerns about the sweltering heat. Many chanted: “No justice, no peace! Free them from the heat.” According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, prisoners yelled “let us out” as they watched supporters fighting for the jail to be closed. At least one lawmaker, Missouri State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, participated in the demonstration.

Protesters mobilized days after a Fox 2 Now released a video of male prisoners crying out for help. A second video released by local news station 5 On Your Side showed shirtless male prisoners clamoring in the jail windows and shouting for assistance. The latter station also interviewed Missouri State Rep. Josh Peters, who argued that conditions in the jail constitute cruel and unusual punishment. During a recent jail visit, Peters learned about rodents biting prisoners, mold in dining areas, and people suffering in the heat.

“It’s not nice in there, all right? But it’s not deplorable,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said last week in response to growing public criticism. But problems at the mismanaged Workhouse are well-documented and tell a different story.

The overwhelming majority of inmates haven’t been convicted of anything — suffering behind bars because they are simply unable to pay bail following their arrest. According to a 2009 ACLU report, inmate abuse in St. Louis is “endemic,” with corrections officers encouraging brutal beatings or engaging in physical violence themselves. Sexual harassment and coercion is common, and staff members reported retaliation against those who choose not to participate in the “culture of abuse.” The report also detailed the “squalor” inmates face, including surfaces covered in feces and vomit. Concerns about extreme heat were raised by former corrections officers as early as 2011.

The issues are worsened by the fact that the jail is filled to the brim with people experiencing mental health crises. “The jail reports that more than 500 people are seeking mental health services while they’re in the jail,” says Executive Director Thomas Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders, a non-profit civil rights law firm. “In addition to the extreme conditions that are created by the weather, you’ve just got a bunch of people in there who are suffering a mental health crisis. If we as a society treated mental health and addiction issues as the health [crises] they were, we wouldn’t be punishing them with pretrial detention.”

But the person with the ultimate power to slash the number of people behind bars, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, has yet to speak up about the recent backlash.

Gardner is responsible for deciding who should be charged in St. Louis and why. At the start of her term, she said expansion of diversion programs were among her priorities and that “[w]e can’t have a one-sized-fits-all way of looking at things.” In June, she said her office isn’t “wasting time with the guy that smokes weed” and wants to devote more resources to fighting violent crime. Together, these statements indicate that she’s interested in making the system more fair, which makes it even more troubling that she’s been silent on the Workhouse conditions and protests.

According to Harvey, Gardner took over an office marred by scandal. Predecessor Jennifer Joyce was known for supporting — and participating in — rampant prosecutorial misconduct, and the newcomer has the monumental task of cleaning up the mess left to her.

Nevertheless, Harvey says Gardner could take several steps to reduce the number of people languishing behind bars. Her office could stop charging low-level, nonviolent offenses on behalf of the State of Missouri. Such cases could instead be handled at the municipal court, which has a special docket for people who struggle with mental health and substance abuse. Every Friday, the municipal court connects defendants to social workers and case managers who are better equipped to help them than jail staff. Gardner could also make bond reductions easier, following up on her campaign promise to stop opposing them.

“I’m disappointed in the silence,” Harvey says. “This would have been an opportune time to say, ‘We’re seeking…to reduce that jail population, because we know the conditions in there aren’t good and we want to do everything we can to ensure that people who shouldn’t be there aren’t there.’”

As Gardner remains silent, Mayor Krewson says air conditioning units will be installed in the next few days. But she maintains that steps are already being taken to solve the problem: inmates have been moved to a cooler floor and provided Gatorade, ice, and towels.

In the meantime, grassroots organizers with the St. Louis Action Council, Decarcerate STL, and the ArchCity Defenders are working to bail out as many people as they can. Due to their fundraising efforts, at least 15 people have been released.

“There’s been no legal determination of their guilt. The City of St. Louis owes a duty to them to provide for their care,” says Harvey.

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