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New Data Throws Fuel on the Fire for Nashville Bail Reform

The majority of people who face misdemeanor charges remain behind bars just because they are poor

New Data Throws Fuel on the Fire for Nashville Bail Reform

The majority of people who face misdemeanor charges remain behind bars just because they are poor

Talk of bail reform in Nashville is getting an assist from recently released data showing that the majority of individuals arrested for misdemeanors remain in jail until their cases are concluded.

According to News Channel 5about 21,000 people were charged with misdemeanors last year in Nashville, but only 8,565, or approximately 40%, were released on bail. The new statistics add momentum to the ongoing push for bail reform in the city. As In Justice Today previously reported, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Civil Rights Corps are calling for an end to money bail in Nashville.

Public Defender Dawn Deaner said there are essentially two criminal justice systems in Nashville, one for those who can pay bail and the other for those who can’t.

“The primary problem with a money bail system is that it simply keeps people in custody solely because they’re poor, or living in poverty and they don’t have the financial means to get out of custody,” Deaner said, arguing that bail reform is clearly needed in Nashville.

But District Attorney General Glenn Funk disagreed, insisting that the statistics were misleading. He maintained some of those not released on bail weren’t in jail for very long. He also said many who stayed in custody longer faced serious misdemeanor charges, such as domestic assault.

“Everybody that’s just charged with a misdemeanor come to court the very next day. Most folks that have their case in front of a judge, either the bond gets reduced, resolved, or sometimes dismissed,” Funk said.

Funk has previously said he’s opposed to keeping people in prison because they’re poor, but he’s also against eliminating cash bail.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, and Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, said the current bail practices are likely unconstitutional and need reform. In an op-ed published this summer in the Tennessean they made the case for reform.

“In 2016, the average amount of secured money bail imposed on people charged with misdemeanors in Davidson County was more than $5,000. Thousands of people are jailed in Davidson County simply because they cannot pay the amount of money demanded in exchange for their liberty,” the editorial said.

Oklahoma Sheriffs Prepare for a Showdown Over Criminal Justice Reform

Will the state with the second highest incarceration rate get its act together?

Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma Sheriffs Prepare for a Showdown Over Criminal Justice Reform

Will the state with the second highest incarceration rate get its act together?

Oklahoma had the second highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2014,and the number of people shepherded into its prisons and jails has continued to grow since. In April, the number of people under the supervision of the state’s Department of Corrections hit a record high of 62,000, with state prisons filled to the brim. Confronted with this grim reality, it has become clear to Republicans and Democrats that there is an urgent, dire need for reform. But in order to advance legislation, which now has bipartisan support from legislators, the governor, and constituents alike, lawmakers have to contend with members of the law enforcement community — who refuse to let bills pass without a fight.

Last Thursday, the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech to the state’s sheriffs about the national and state “crime problem,” the leader of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association called on his colleagues to brace for a major legislative battle in the near future. “This is going to be probably one of the biggest defensive years that this association has ever had,” Executive Director Ray McNair said. He referenced potential cuts to fines and fees and efforts to turn certain felonies into misdemeanor offenses. “You have no idea the importance of being out at that Capitol.”

McNair’s plea to foil reform efforts was echoed by Rep. Scott Biggs (R), chair of Oklahoma’s judiciary committee. Noting their experiences with crime and sentencing, Biggs asked sheriffs to mobilize and pressure legislators to say no to reform. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an issue. This is a fight that is not going away,” he said. “But would you believe the Governor and her DOC director want to reduce penalties and early release for those individuals who disgrace the American flag. I don’t think that’s something that Oklahoma really, truly believes in, but that’s something they want to do.”

In many ways, the problems with Oklahoma’s criminal justice system mirror the problems detailed in every state grappling with mass incarceration. Detention facilities are teeming with people who come from poverty and communities of color and who were charged or convicted for low-level offenses. In December 2016, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Reform Task Force reported that Oklahoma County, home of the state’s largest municipality, Oklahoma City, housed 2,581 people in a jail designed to hold 1,200. Many people who hadn’t been found guilty of a crime were too poor to make bail and were coping with substance abuse and mental illness. The Task Force concluded that drug and alcohol offenses accounted for the majority of felony, misdemeanor, and municipal charges that people were locked up for.

Statewide, criminal statutes have classified hundreds of minor offenses as felonies that lead to draconian sentences, with an average of 26 new crimes established annually from 2010 and 2015. But according to Brad Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, growth in the state’s carceral population isn’t a new phenomenon driven by recent legislation. Rather, it is a trend that has been ongoing since the 1990s. The current bloated system can be attributed to outdated tough-on-crime policies, he says.

“The impact of things like mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing — the so-called three strikes you’re out rule — can be exponential,” Henderson told In Justice Today. “You end up with people who suddenly are going in for longer and longer sentences. And those sentences are stacking on top of each other.”

Within the past two years, state lawmakers and constituents on both sides of the aisle have recognized a need for reform. Last November, voters passed SQ 780 and SQ 781, public referendums that reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and provided funding for rehabilitative services. Both went into effect in July. But the victory was coupled with a major legislative defeat in May. Multiple reform bills that had large-scale bipartisan support failed to pass, forcing lawmakers to try again next year. “These [were] bills that were trying to ratchet down very bad over-incarceration policies that we’ve had for years,” Henderson said.

Biggs, the very same legislator calling on sheriffs to organize, is typically viewed as the culprit who stopped the bills dead in their tracks, earning McNair’s praise last week. As the leader of the judiciary, Biggs ultimately held the bills so they wouldn’t come to a floor vote, where they were likely to pass. But Biggs didn’t act alone, Henderson says. The House speaker or president pro tempore are authorized to circumvent chairmen who use their power to hold up the passage of legislation. But they didn’t.

Regardless of who is responsible for the past, sheriffs vowing to fight new bills could complicate reform in the future. In many other local legislative battles, law enforcement groups — representing hundreds and thousands of sheriffspolice officers, and prosecutors — have successfully lobbied politicians to block a wide range of reforms that had bipartisan support.

It is too early to say how many sheriffs will support the call to action, and the extent to which they will pressure lawmakers. But if McNair gets his way, every member of the association will fall in line. “We can’t have the same 10 or 11 people show up at the Capitol,” he said. “What we do out at the Capitol affects all 77 sheriffs.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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New Study Supports Larry Krasner’s Pledge to End Cash Bail in Philly

The City Controller’s report calls on the DA’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system”

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz

New Study Supports Larry Krasner’s Pledge to End Cash Bail in Philly

The City Controller’s report calls on the DA’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system”

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz has released an economic impact study with a startling finding: the city could save $75 million a year by ending cash bail and sending thousands of people arrested each year for nonviolent, low-level crimes home to await their court dates. As its number one recommendation, the report calls on the District Attorney’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system.”

The study will likely benefit the campaign of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s Democratic nominee for District Attorney, who has made ending cash bail a major part of his platform.

According to Butkovitz’ economic analysis, the elimination of cash bail for individuals charged with non-violent and low-level crimes would reduce Philadelphia’s total prison population from more than 6,500 to less than 4,700. This would allow the city to close the Philadelphia House of Correction and the city detention center, thus saving $75 million annually.

The report reads in part: “Research has found current systems can cause more damage on the incarcerated and their families than benefit, whereas alternatives may be just as effective, yet provide better futures for those in the criminal justice system.” Alternative suggestions made in the report for ensuring those charged show up in court range from sending out text message reminders to electronic monitoring.

Eliminating bail and closing jails would also allow Philadelphia to invest more resources in reducing recidivism and reentry programs, according to Butkovitz.

Councilman Curtis Jones has also called for the elimination of bail:

“I think we are at a time in Philadelphia where people are coming to the table sincerely wanting to change the criminal justice paradigm,” Jones said in an interview with PhillyVoice. “We want to get down to like 5,000 [inmates] and we are at 7,500 on average.”

Bail reform can achieve that goal, Jones maintained. Butkovitz agrees, insisting that keeping the current system in place is not only costly, it also unfairly penalizes those lacking financial resources.

“When you consider the cost of housing somebody in a prison, it amounts to about $160 a day for people who have not committed violent crimes and cannot raise the cash to make a low amount of bail,” he said. Moreover, Butkovitz maintains that the logic behind the practice of locking people up to make sure they appear in court is faulty.

“By sending people messages on their iPhones and hounding them into court, just reminding them is having a greater impact than holding their money over their head — particularly when the people who are incarcerated don’t have the money,” he argued, adding that keeping those awaiting trial out of jail allows them to hold onto their jobs and support their families.

If Philadelphia implements the suggestions made in the report, it will join other major cities and states in reforming bail practices. ChicagoWashington, D.C. and New Jersey have largely stopped using money as a condition for release. Court challenges have ended or dramatically altered money bail systems in a number of other jurisdictions around the country, and the movement is gaining nationwide support.

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