Media

Indiana revises bail policy

October 6, 2016 | The Indianapolis Recorder | Link to Article

Indiana has joined a growing list of states looking to revamp its criminal justice system with a new approach to dealing with crime suspects prior to their day in court.

The Indiana Supreme Court announced earlier this month plans to reform the state’s current bail system. Prior to the change, if an arrestee could not afford to post bail, they could find themselves spending months behind bars without even a conviction.

The new policy is the product of a study committee made up of trial judges, legislators, probation officers, a county prosecutor, the chair of the Indiana State Bar Association Criminal Justice Section and representatives of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana Public Defender Council.

The rule reads, “If an arrestee does not present a substantial risk of flight or danger to themselves or others, the court should release the arrestee without money bail or surety subject to such restrictions and conditions as determined by the court,” but there are some exceptions noted.

The new rule does not apply when someone is arrested on a charge of murder or treason. If, at the time of arrest, the suspect is already on pre-trial release for an unrelated case, or if the suspect is on probation, parole or another kind of supervision, the new rule would not apply.

Rather than using a bail schedule to assign bail based on the type of criminal charge, Indiana courts will now use “evidence-based risk assessment” to make such decisions.

The new approach is currently being tested in nine Indiana counties — Allen, Bartholomew, Hamilton, Hendricks, Jefferson, Monroe, St. Joseph, Starke and Tipton — and will be implemented in all Indiana courts by Jan. 1, 2018.

Rev. Juard Barnes, has personally experienced the shortcomings of Indiana’s previous approach to bail, and he applauds the court’s new rule.

Barnes, community organizer with IndyCAN — a local movement for racial and economic dignity and equity that has focused on mass incarceration — lost his job and fell behind on child support. Barnes said he loved his son and wanted to support him financially, but he simply didn’t have the money. He did eventually find another job and started bringing in income and paying some of the child support he owed, but he hit a roadblock.

“They put me in jail, and my bail was my arrearage I had on my child support,” Barnes said. “Instead of working on paying child support, I sat in jail for four months.”

Barnes said his brother eventually was able to put together the thousands of dollars needed to get him out of jail and back to work, but his experience brought him to some tough realizations.

“I remember realizing when I was taken to jail, I’m helpless against this system, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “The system had no interest in whether or not I could fix (the child support arrearage); they were fine with caging me.

“What I saw was a system that designs a set of circumstances that undermines the ability of somebody to participate in the economy, to walk in liberty, to stand up and move into various stages of their lives that would allow them to incrementally build their way into a place where they can be successful for their family … a system that is going to short-circuit every opportunity for a person to render themselves purposeful.”

According to a report from IndyCAN called “People’s Roadmap to End Mass Incarceration and Mass Criminalization in Marion County,” there isn’t a clear picture of just how many jail inmates are behind bars for the sole reason that they can’t afford to pay their bail. The report analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey instrument called the Annual Survey of Jails (ASJ) and found Marion County’s data incomplete.

“Marion County has reported the number of un-convicted inmates as unknown in eight of the last nine waves of the Annual Survey of Jails, and has reported the time served by un-convicted inmates as unknown for every wave of the survey,” the report says.

However, “the data reported on the amount of time that individuals found innocent or released after charges were dropped is, if accurate, very troubling: 44.3 percent of these individuals spent more than 30 days behind bars, and 5.3 percent spent more than six months.”

Doris Stewart says she didn’t spend nearly that much time in jail after she was arrested and couldn’t pay the bail, but the impact was still huge. Stewart — who at the time was working and going to school, in addition to raising school-age children — went to pay a forgotten parking ticket but was arrested.

She had enough money to pay for the ticket, but the bail was beyond her reach, so she spent the night in jail. In addition to the time she lost at work, Stewart said she also had to pay for overnight childcare. She hopes the new approach to pre-trial release in Indiana will keep people from experiencing what she went through.

“In a situation like that, there should be something systematically done where if a person comes to correct a wrong that they’re not treated as a criminal without due process,” she said.

In Mesa County, Colorado, evidence-based pre-trial risk assessment has doubled the number of arrestees who have been released from jail without having to pay bail, according to information included in the report from IndyCAN.

“Judges, who now have more information from which to make their pretrial release decisions, went from releasing 30 percent of defendants on their own recognizance (that is, without paying a bond) in 2011 to releasing 60 percent of defendants on their own recognizance in 2015. These reforms saved the county 95,630 jail bed days in 2012 alone. The jail’s pretrial population dropped 27 percent from June 2013 to November 2014, while maintaining impressive safety and appearance rates.”

In addition to saving taxpayer dollars by keeping jail beds unoccupied, pre-trial release has also been tied to reduced recidivism rates, fewer convictions and shorter sentences.

The Recorder sought comment from the Indiana Surety Bail Agents Association (ISBAA) to learn how the new rule might affect its constituents. The ISBAA’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to protect and serve the best interest of the commercial surety bail agents operating in Indiana by standing sentry over legislative efforts adverse to there (sic) interest. ISBAA has committed to promote professionalism, ethical behavior and education and to enhance the public perception of the bail industry in Indiana.”

ISBAA President Lee Sexton offered the following via email: “The ISBAA, has no formal response at this time. We feel it would be premature to make a statement until we obtain more information.”