Of the 3,840 people held in lieu of bond in Connecticut on a single day in January 2010, more than 75 percent were held on a bond set greater than $25,000, according to a Dec. 17 report by the Office of Legislative Research. Further, at least one Hartford defense lawyer says many people are incarcerated for six months or more before their cases are thrown out.
The report used Correction Department statistics to break down the day’s accused inmate population by their bond amount, race, and the most serious charge upon which each inmate was held. The figures in the report reflect a high percentage of those arrested being unable to post bail.
In criminal cases, bonds are set by judges to ensure a defendant will return for court proceedings, not as a form of punishment. But an accused inmate’s ability to post bail and be released from pretrial custody can have a profound effect on the outcome of his or her case, according to state Senator and lawyer Martin Looney.
“The single most important factor in predicting the likely outcome of a case and whether it will end favorably for a defendant is can they make bond in the first place,” Looney said.
Connecticut’s court system offers several deferment programs designed to educate offenders in the hopes it will deter them from repeating the behavior that got them arrested but these programs are granted by a judge on a case by case basis.
Looney notes that someone who is released from custody before a trail has many options to influence the outcome of their cases.
For instance, someone arrested on drug charges could check themselves into rehab; someone charged with disturbing the peace could volunteer for community service; a defendant could find a steady job. All of these things factor in to how the state decides to prosecute an accused offender.
But a person who is unable to post bond and remains in detention “remains exactly as he was on the day he was arrested,” Looney said.
That puts people unable to raise the required funds at a significant disadvantage.
“Someone who remains incarcerated pending the resolution of a case is under great pressure to accept a plea deal even if he had a relatively sound defense,” Looney said.
One reason for that is prosecutors will sometimes recommend that time served before a trial be counted towards the accused offender’s final sentence. After taking a plea deal, an offender may be released on time served but walks away with a conviction on his criminal record.
In 2008 A. Paul Spinella, an attorney in Hartford, requested class action status for a federal lawsuit, which claimed the state’s bail bond system was unconstitutional. Spinella said that many of his clients were wrongfully imprisoned and held for long periods before the charges against them were eventually dropped.
Using the state’s data, Spinella said he found that over three-year period more than 1,500 people were held for six months or more before their cases were thrown out.
The lawsuit, however, was dismissed in February, when a federal court judge decided it was a matter to be settled in the state’s court system, Spinella said. The case now sits in a state appellate where it is awaiting review but Spinella is still hoping that case, which he is working pro bono, will have far reaching implications.
“It’s a unique case because it is asking the court to strike down the entire bail bond system in Connecticut,” he said. “It’s an outrageous system because if a defendant is indigent then any monetary bond is discriminatory.”
Looney points out that holding more inmates on bond is expensive for the state as well.
“Just the cost of caring for people within the system is significant,” Looney said, noting the prisoners must be fed and housed.
But there is also a sort of negative cyclical effect at work. Higher bonds lead to more people in prison, which means the state must pay more people to take care of them.
At the same time, someone stuck in pretrial detention is more likely to wind up with some sort of conviction and, ultimately, parole. This increases the workloads of parole officers, who then have more parolees to attend to. More parolees means the officers have less time to spend on each individual, leading to a higher percentage of parole violations and more people landing back in prisons.
On Jan. 25 the second most frequent crime inmates were being held on was violation of probation.
The most reoccurring offense was possession of narcotics, according to the OLR report. All told, drug-related offenses made up about 15 percent of the most serious crimes. Though the report does not specify the original charges leading to the probation violations, it is likely many stem from drug related offenses.
The bonds set for those held on possession charges varied greatly. The largest group, 94 of the accused offenders, had their bonds set between $100,001 and $250,000. Four people accused of possession of narcotics were held on bonds greater than $1 million.
According to a 2009 Office of Fiscal Analysis report, the state spends somewhere around $400,000 each year prosecuting cases where possession of small amounts of marijuana is the primary offense. The state also spends money on public defenders who work on behalf of the accused, Looney said.
A bill that would have decriminalized up to a half ounce of marijuana died in a Finance Committee hearing in 2009 after Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, led a half hour filibuster against it. That already controversial bill was complicated after the vice-president of a short-lived marijuana law reform group sent Boucher and other lawmakers a profanity-laced and threatening email.
Had that bill been adopted and the offense was lessened to an infraction, people accused of possession of small amounts of marijuana would be fined rather than face jail time and would not be entitled to a public defender, Looney said.
The marijuana issue may be taken up again in the coming legislative session as the state continues to look for ways to cut costs, Looney said, but he would like to see a broader overhaul of the system.
“I’m hopeful we will be able to look at the whole [criminal justice] system,” he said adding that with an incoming Democratic governor, there will be a stronger partnership between the executive and legislative branches.