A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers plans to introduce bills in Lansing on Wednesday to reform Michigan’s bail system, a change supporters say would save taxpayers money and free poor people awaiting trial.
The effort to eliminate cash bail for many offenses has gained traction in recent years among activists who want Michigan to follow the lead of other states and change the system they say unnecessarily jails poor people who are charged with crimes but can’t afford to post bond.
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said he expects to introduce the legislation on Oct. 17. It has support from some perhaps surprising quarters, including law enforcement officials.
“My package is trying to address the clogged arteries of the system leading to people being lodged in jail on very, very low bonds,” LaGrand said. “We don’t want a justice system that has one set of results for poor people and another set of results for people with cash in their pockets to pay bail. This is an issue of liberty and justice and morality.”
The proposed legislation would:
- Change laws to release most defendants on personal bonds, or at no cost and only a promise to return to court.
- Create an assessment process to determine a defendant’s financial ability to pay a bond
- Require courts to collect and submit quarterly data to the state Supreme Court about cash bonds to ensure the system is not abused.
- Urge local governments to use the savings accrued from reducing the jail population for community policing efforts.
Defenders of bail have said the system ensures those charged with crimes attend court dates and don’t flee.
Judges could still set cash bond if defendants pose a danger to the community, are flight risks or have histories of missing court dates. In that process, the financial assessment would be conducted on the defendant and reported to the judge. The judge would be required to explain the rationale for setting the price of a cash bond.
LaGrand said the most significant hurdle to reforming the state’s cash bail system at this point is timing, he said. The Legislature meets only 15 days until it recesses on Dec. 20, and any bills that don’t pass by then will die.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” LaGrand said.
Republican supporters include co-sponsors such as Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, who is vice chair of the Judiciary subcommittee and serves on and state police subcommittee; Scott VanSingel, R-Grant, a member of the House appropriations committee and Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, who is on the judiciary committee and law and justice committee.
Howrylak pointed out that cash bail reform has broad support from liberals as well as conservatives such as the Koch Brothers and the Mackinac Center on Public Policy. But he predicted it won’t get a vote during lame duck.
“I don’t see it as being fast tracked. Would I like it to be? Absolutely,” Howrylak said. “I think the real likelihood is that we’re setting the groundwork for next term.”
Brann, who owns a small restaurant in Wyoming in west Michigan, is sponsoring a bill in the package that would allow people arrested for failure to pay child support to be released on reduced bond at a judge’s discretion.
He said he’s paid hundreds of dollars to bail out employees who could not pay bonds.
“I’ve seen it happen where police take an employee off job and they don’t have the money to make bond so they can go back to work so they can pay the child support,” he said. “They’re not doing any good in jail.”
A first term legislator, Brann said he is unsure if the bills will get a vote during the lame duck session.
‘Tragic’ human cost
Opponents of the current system say it unfairly punishes the poor and wastes money.
“Cash bail is an outdated system that unjustly disrupts the lives of thousands of vulnerable Michiganders before they are convicted of any crime and without regard for whether they pose a risk to public safety,” said Barbara Wieland, a spokeswoman for Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based group that advocates for criminal justice reform.
“The mere inability to pay bail causes many people to languish in county jails for weeks or even months at the cost of their jobs, vehicles, housing, credit scores and minor children. The human cost of this unnecessary incarceration is tragic but avoidable, as the federal system and the number of states that do not use cash bail have made clear.”
In 2016, 65 percent of inmates in U.S. jails were defendants who had not yet been convicted of a crime. A majority, 52 percent, were people of color, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In Michigan, about 41 percent of an estimated 16,350 jail inmates at the end of 2013 were awaiting trial or arraignment, adding more than $180 million a year in costs largely paid by local taxpayers, the federal data show.
In Wayne County, as many as 60 percent of the jail population is comprised of defendants who can’t make bail and are awaiting trial, according to the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. One day of jail alone costs about $75 per day across the United States or more than $10 billion a year, 2017 Bridge analysis found.
In recent years, California, Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey and Georgia curtailed or eliminated cash bail. Washington, D.C. got rid of bail in 1992 for all defendants except those deemed most dangerous and 2015 data showed 90 percent returned to court and were not arrested while awaiting trial.
Police and prosecutors, including the Michigan Sheriff’s Association and Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, support what they call the responsible elimination of cash bail.
D.J Hilson, the Muskegon County prosecutor and president of the prosecutor group, said he met with LaGrand to discuss the proposed legislation and sees value in it.
Cash bail can be reformed in a way that protects public safety, victims’ rights and provides equal justice for people no matter whether they can afford bail, he said.
“Those issues, I think are properly addressed in the legislation,” he said.
The proposed legislation comes after a national group called the Bail Project this summer started paying bail for low-income defendants in Detroit to help poor people who have not been convicted get back to work and families.