The question may seem obvious, but should the decision of whether a defendant in Connecticut should await trial behind bars, rather than at home, depend on the seriousness of the charges? Or on whether the person is too dangerous to be at large? Or on whether they are a flight risk? Or on whether they are able to come up with sufficient cash for bail?
These are some of the questions the state Sentencing Commission and lawmakers including state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney are asking.
“My sense is that the way the cash bail system operates now, it is in too many cases a punishment for being poor,” said Looney, a New Haven Democrat and a criminal defense lawyer.
This is an issue well worth looking into in a state where many people, including the present and immediate past governor, have signed on to the concept of a “Second Chance Society.”
While that term is used mainly when it comes to making it more possible for prisoners to re-enter society, it should also come to bear on the beginning of the judicial process, when poor defendants, who are disproportionately black or Hispanic, are locked up on misdemeanor charges because they don't have even a few hundred dollars to post bail, while people of means are able to post bond, even multimillion-dollar bond, in murder cases.
According to reporting by The Associated Press, this state’s jails and prisons hold about 3,000 people in pretrial detention, about 420 of them with bails under $20,000 and about 500 of them being held on misdemeanors, such as minor larcenies and drug possession.
In Connecticut, defendants with a $20,000 bond — often on a misdemeanor charge — would need to come up with about $1,400 to pay a bail bondsman. Otherwise, they remain in jail, for weeks or months, at a cost to the taxpayer to house them.
This is patently unfair, and we applaud Looney for his effort to amend at least some of the most egregious situations.
It’s time to rethink our cash bail system.