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Let’s end unneeded cash bail

A bipartisan group of legislators in the Michigan House of Representatives has introduced a “pretrial reform” package of bills that would change the way people arrested for nonviolent crimes are treated before their arraignment and hearings, and would essentially end the cash bail system as we know it.

That reform is long overdue, as many individuals charged with nonviolent crimes have languished in Michigan’s jails as a result of not being able to put up cash bail while they await sentencing.

On any given day, for example, an average of 41 people are sitting in Alpena, Montmorency, and Presque Isle county jails awaiting their sentencing.

The consequences of having to remain in jail due to not having bail money can be devastating to individuals and their families: loss of a job, financial hardship because of missing work, disrupted family and social relations, and trauma for family members — especially for children who are placed into Child Protective Services custody simply because their parent cannot afford cash bail.

The practice of requiring cash bail for defendants who do not pose a safety or flight risk is inherently unfair. Rather than keeping communities safe, it simply keeps people in the lower income levels in jail while privileging those with money and resources. It also disproportionately punishes people of color.

In addition to being destructive to families and communities and unfair to those with fewer financial resources, the bail system as it is practiced today is unnecessary for maintaining public safety.

Why? Because, if a court deems a defendant to be a safety risk, the court will not release that individual on either cash bond or personal recognizance.

Someone who is dangerous to society will be dangerous regardless of whether they have the money to put up bail or not. The defendant who sits in jail because of a lack of money and resources is no less safe than the one who goes free because they have family or friends who can provide cash bail.

Predictably, those who benefit financially from the current system oppose such changes and use scare tactics to persuade people that ending most uses of cash bail endangers the public.

But a growing number of Michigan organizations across the ideological spectrum have endorsed the pretrial reform bill package, from conservative organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, the Christian Coalition of Michigan, and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, to liberal and progressive organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Safe and Just Michigan, and the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Yes, there are people who are charged with nonviolent crimes who nonetheless are deemed a flight risk for whom cash bail can ensure an appearance in court. The bill package will put forth a set of standards by which that can be determined, so as not to unnecessarily impose cash bonds on the majority of arrested persons who fully intend to show up for their hearings.

The bill package is based on the recommendations of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration convened by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, chaired by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, and made up of state department representatives, legislators, law enforcement, county elected officials, judges and others.

The Michigan League for Public Policy commends the many people who have worked to craft the bills and introduce them.

Now, let’s see those bills get taken up, deliberated, and fine-tuned so they can be passed and sent to the governor for her signature.

It is time to put an end to the overuse of cash bail.

Peter Ruark is senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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