Michigan bail reform bills aim for equal justice


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A package of bills introduced in the Michigan House Wednesday would reform the way judges set bail, letting more people out of jail before they stand trial.

“The current system disproportionately burdens those with lower incomes, often reinforcing poverty cycles with deep consequences for even minor infractions,” the bills’ main sponsor, state Rep. David LaGrand, said.

LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, has been working for two years to build support for a set of bills that would largely eliminate cash bail unless certain conditions exist.

“Democracy never works quite as fast as you wish it would,” he said.

Under the package of 10 bills (PDF), judges could only set cash bond if a defendant poses a flight or public safety risk, and even then they would have to “impose the least onerous conditions of release that will reasonably ensure” the defendant’s appearance and the public’s safety.

If there’s no risk of flight or danger, judges would have to set a personal recognizance bond, which means a defendant can get out pending trial without posting cash upfront.

The bills would also require judges to explain bond decisions on the record and report their stats so the state can hold them accountable.

More than half of Michigan’s 15,000 inmates are in jail before trial, meaning they’re innocent until proven otherwise. Research shows that nationally, three quarters of those jailed pretrial are charged with nonviolent offenses. The cost to taxpayers is about $75 per inmate each day. Nationwide, that works out to $14 billion annually.

In 2017, Target 8 exposed that whether you get out of jail pending trial in West Michigan depends largely on which judge you happen to go before. Judges have leeway to decide whether to set bond and how high it will be.

But even with a low bond, many people can’t get out of jail.

“About half our citizens are living paycheck to paycheck,” LaGrand said. “Fifty-five percent of Americans don’t have $500 in their life and don’t know where they’d get it if they had a problem.”

He said the consequences for people who can’t get out of jail pending trial solely because they’re poor can be dire.

“If they don’t show up for work, they’re going to lose their job. If they lose their job, pretty quickly they’re going to lose their housing. If they lose their job and they lose their housing, maybe they’ll even lose their children,” he said.

In February, five courts in Michigan — none of them in West Michigan — started testing a pretrial risk assessment program (PDF) that aims to get more people out of jail before trial. The state says the assessment uses a set of “statistically validated predictors of pretrial risk” to determine how bond should be set. At one of those courts in Delta County, the Daily Press out of Escanaba reports, the program led to a decline in the number of inmates at the jail.

You can follow the progress of LaGrand’s bills on the state Legislature’s website.

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