Richard Stanford, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran who lived with his daughter in Maryland, had 31 cents to his name when he was arrested for trespassing.
Bail was set at $2,600. Because neither he nor his daughter could pay it, he spent three weeks in jail. Fearing a lengthier stay, he pleaded guilty, was sentenced to time served and released.
His case is emblematic of a justice system with a blatant disregard for the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive bail” and fines.
Seeds of change, though, are being planted in various states — most recently, Iowa.
More than 12 million arrests are made in the U.S. annually — the vast majority for minor crimes. The FBI categorizes only 10 percent as “violent offenses.”
On a daily basis, more than 450,000 sit in city and county jails awaiting trial. Nine out of 10 can’t afford bail.
As Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., unlikely conservative-liberal bedfellows, wrote in the New York Times, the bail system “disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color” while ignoring a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision on constitutional safeguards against “punishing a person for his poverty.”
Nationally, it costs taxpayers $9 billion annually to imprison people awaiting trial.
However, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and New Jersey and dozens of cities are now taking a more enlightened approach using “risk-assessment tools” developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which reviewed data in more than 1.5 million cases in 300-plus jurisdictions.
The Iowa Department of Corrections has unveiled an experimental program in Polk and three other counties giving judges those tools — based on nine variables — before deciding to set bail or conditionally release a person awaiting trial.
“Many defendants are low-risk individuals who, if released before trial, are likely to return to court and highly unlikely to commit other crimes. Others present moderate risks and can often be managed in the community through supervision, monitoring, bail, or other interventions,” the DOC stated.
“There is, of course, a small group of defendants who should be detained because they pose significant risks of committing acts of violence, committing additional crimes, or fail to appear. It is vital to accurately distinguish among the low-, moderate-, and high-risk defendants, and identify those who are at an elevated risk for violence thus picking the ‘right’ people to detain.”
The risk-assessment tool includes such factors as past criminal convictions and failures to appear, but excludes race or gender.
People with the least favorable risk assessment scores would remain incarcerated or post bond with monitoring requirements.
Those without bail still could face home detention, electronic monitoring, curfews and meetings with a pretrial release officer. Those with the best scores would simply receive phone reminders about court appearances.
For the Iowa experiment, judges in 50 percent of the cases would use risk-assessment tools, while the other half would act as a control group. Harvard University researchers will study the results.
If successful, the DOC envisions an eventual statewide roll-out. Judges, though, will continue to exercise discretion.
The program does have obstacles. Judges may be wary of a potential backlash if someone they release commits another crime. A University of Pittsburgh study found local judges there only used the risk-assessment tool 60 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, the Iowa bail-bond industry is already lobbying against reform.
The Eighth Amendment, though, exists for a reason.
The New York City judicial system arraigned 365,752 people in 2013, but only 691 cases resulted in trials. Pleas were frequently due to coercion — unattainable high bail and the prospect of time on Riker’s Island, an unfathomable hellhole of a prison.
A plea agreement meant a criminal record, affecting employment opportunities, while an Arnold Foundation study found staying in jail awaiting trial also had dire consequences. Low-risk defendants could lose their job or housing, increasing the likelihood of being arrested again.
New York state responded by establishing licensed charitable bail organizations to provide bail for those too poor to pay it. In the Bronx in New York City, the Freedom Fund reported 98 percent of its bail fund clients showed up for court appearances. In more than half their cases, charges were dismissed.
According to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study, the U.S. led the world with 22 percent of the planet’s prison population. That shouldn’t be who we are as a nation.
In Iowa we can do much better. The DOC project is commendable — potentially easing the taxpayer burden, while adding an overdue dose of common sense.