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Rethinking Pretrial Justice in the Pelican State

Louisiana recently shed the title of having the highest incarceration rate in the country, and now it is time to take a look at the state of pretrial detention and the need for bail reform in the Pelican State.   Many people who pose a low risk to public safety are being held in local jails awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.  What’s more, is our tax dollars pay the bill to keep them in jail. 

Over the past few years as a probation and parole officer, I witnessed the current bail system play out weekly. Like clockwork, bondsmen appear before 8:00 am in the courtroom. They anxiously sit, with pen and paper in hand, waiting for the Judge to appear and for the accused to appear via video. 

An arrest has been made and now the accused appears before a Judge for “line-up.”  The accused is notified of the charges they face and a bond is set.  The bondsmen make note of the bond amount and the accused’s name.  They are ready to get to work.  What is often overlooked, are the worried family members sitting on the edge of their seats in the courtroom.  They are often confused about what has occurred and overwhelmed at seeing their loved one in an orange jump suit and in handcuffs.  Most are wondering how they are going to come up with the money to get their loved one out of jail.   

study conducted by Charles Koch Institute and the Pretrial Justice Institute found that “even when bail is set at $500 or less, only 15 percent of Americans can afford it.”  The family members have good reasons to be concerned.  Other studies show that being incarcerated even for a short time can increase one’s likelihood of committing additional crimes. These few hours of incarceration can also detrimentally impact employment and family relationships.   

After the bond has been set, the next phase begins.  The bondsmen and family members all move over to the waiting room at the local jail.  This is where the grandparents, parents, family members and friends all line up to pay portions of the bond to the bondsman. 

You may ask, “What’s wrong with this process?” A crime was committed and this is all part of the process.  Our criminal justice system was created with the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty.  Does this presumption of innocence only apply to those who can afford bail?  The fact that someone can afford to make bond does not necessarily ensure the public’s safety.  Current bail procedures can keep those who are not a threat to public safety behind bars because they can’t afford to pay, while those who are a danger can remain free if they have the money. That is not smart and is not safe.

It is paramount that the public is protected from violent, dangerous criminals.  By using a system that allows a judge to use a risk assessment, low risk persons who do not pose a threat to public safety can be identified and the terms of their pretrial release or detention can be made on an individual basis.  A system that works on the presumption of innocence protects public safety and ensures a person will return to court is a system that protects the liberty of all regardless of economic status.


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