GR rep’s plan to eliminate the jail bond ‘wealth test’

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A state lawmaker from Grand Rapids is working on a set of bills that would change the way Michigan judges set bond for low-income defendants.

It’s a problem Target 8 told you about last year: Often the decision about whether a low-risk defendant is allowed out of jail without paying money upfront depends on who is hearing their case.

“We’re not talking about people who are dangerous… we’re talking about people who are poor. Dangerous people have high bonds set for them already,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids.

Under LaGrand’s bills, judges would still be allowed to impose high bonds for defendants they deem dangerous or a flight risk.

LaGrand says the problem is that too often the system is keeping low-risk defendants behind bars simply because they can’t afford the bond to get out. He says it’s a bad deal for the defendant and taxpayers.

“Why do I (as a taxpayer) want to keep someone in jail and pay $60 to $100 a day because they couldn’t afford a $200 bond? That doesn’t make any sense at all,” he explained. “If the bond is that low, it’s because the judge doesn’t think they’re a risk. So why isn’t it zero?”

LaGrand’s bills would make several changes to the way judges set bonds. One of the most important is the creation of a financial disclosure form all defendants would fill out before being arraigned.

“The idea here is really to streamline and give judges better information,” LaGrand said.

 His hope is that with better information about a defendant’s finances, judges will be less likely to order cash bonds for low-income, low-risk defendants that prevent them from leaving jail.

The bills would also get rid of bail schedules, which is a scale that tells the judge what bond to set based on the crime. Instead, judges would decide each case on its own merits.

Unless the judge finds the defendant is a danger or won’t show up for court, the bills say defendants should be released on a personal recognizance bond. That means they don’t have to put up any money to get out of jail.

LaGrand’s plan would also do away with interim bonds, which are typically smaller cash amounts attached to a misdemeanor. They come into play when a person is arrested on a weekend or holiday; the goal is to allow someone to post bond so the defendant can get out of jail instead of spending the weekend behind bars waiting for a judge.

However, you only get out if you can pay the bond, usually a couple hundred dollars. If you are poor, you will likely remain in jail.

“What we’re doing now to tens of thousands of people in Michigan, by having this wealth test for whether or not you get out, is really producing some pretty bad outcomes,” LaGrand said.

That’s what happened to Chandra Amaya last fall. She was arrested on a misdemeanor charge on a Friday. Unable to pay her interim bond, she was held in jail until Monday, when she was arraigned.

During Amaya’s court hearing, the judge set her bond at $100. Unable to pay it, Amaya remained in jail for 30 days until she appeared before the judge again and pleaded guilty. The judge then sentenced Amaya to time served.

Under LaGrand’s bill, Amaya likely would have been released the day she was arrested and given a date to come back to court.

“You can imagine pretty quickly all the cascading failures that come out of sitting in jail. If you’re sitting in jail and you’re a renter and you lose your job, you’re probably going to lose not just your job, but you’re also going to lose your housing,” LaGrand said.

That’s what happened to Amaya, who lost her job as she waited in jail.

LaGrand says his bills will save taxpayers money by cutting the number of defendants held in jail before trial. His hope is that communities will reinvest that money in policing and public safety.

LaGrand plans to talk about the bond bills and other measures Monday night at a Justice Reform Town Hall. It runs from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Grand Rapids Public Schools Administration building at 1331 Franklin Ave. SE in Grand Rapids.

Natasha Neal of Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, Michigan State University criminal justice specialist Derrick Franke and Grand Rapids City Commissioner Joe Jones are also expected to attend.

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