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Amid High Crime, Some States Move In Opposite Directions On Bail

Crime is shaping up as a potent election issue, and a key debate point involves bail: Which suspects should be jailed before trial, and which ones should be released on bond — and for how much money?

Some conservatives argue that lenient bail policies put suspects who are likely to commit crimes before their upcoming court hearings, or who might skip bail, back on the street.

Progressives say research does not support that contention. They argue that detaining defendants because they can’t afford bonds is unfair. Such defendants are disproportionately Black, Latino and low income.

Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico have moved away from the use of money bonds. Other states, such as Georgia and New York, are moving in the opposite direction, implementing stricter rules. Tennessee is considering a constitutional amendment that would give judges more discretion to deny bail amid concerns about rising crime.

Politicians on both sides of the debate often connect bail policy to crime rates. Experts say doing so is problematic, because so much of the crime data that states and cities use is unreliable, Stateline reports.

The reality, experts say, is that most crime data is too unreliable to pinpoint specific policies as the sole cause of increasing or decreasing crime rates. The bail system often is misunderstood as a form of punishment rather than the process for releasing individuals before trial under certain conditions.

“There’s nothing out there that shows a correlation or a connection of any sort between increasing the rates of pretrial release and the rates of crime,” said Spurgeon Kennedy of the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice research organization. Kennedy has served as president of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies.

These misconceptions about crime can leave voters vulnerable to misinformation.

"If you ask the typical person on the streets, ‘Do you think crime is up or down over the last year,’ they will tell you, ‘Oh, it’s up. It’s way up.’ But we’ve seen reductions in crime overall and also in violent crime,” Kennedy said. “So the facts don’t follow the argument, and that’s unfortunate because that makes it much more easier to keep this out as a political football.”

Both chambers of Georgia’s legislature passed a bill this month that would add 30 additional felony and misdemeanor crimes to the state’s list of bail-restricted offenses, which means that people accused of those crimes would be required to post cash bail. They include charges of unlawful assembly, racketeering, domestic terrorism and possession of marijuana.

The bill also would prevent any individuals or organizations from posting cash bail more than three times per year unless they establish themselves as bail bonding companies, severely limiting charitable bail funds. The bill is headed to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Some criminal justice advocates say the bill would clash with changes made by a 2018 law to the state’s legal system for people accused of misdemeanors. That law, was championed by former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, mandates that judges take into account the financial circumstances of the accused when setting bail.

Pretrial policy experts say that being in jail for even a few days or weeks can cost people their homes or jobs or damage their personal relationships, said Matt Alsdorf of the Center for Effective Public Policy and the co-director of the group’s Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research project. “The use of unnecessary detention has negative impacts, even if you’re just looking at it through a public safety or crime prevention lens,” he said.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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