HARTFORD, CT — Speaker after speaker implored the Connecticut Sentencing Commission on Thursday to reform the state’s criminal justice and sentencing policies, but no testimony was as passionate as a former inmate, Yale Law School graduate and current public defender who called the current system “a complete farce.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts told members of the Sentencing Commission that the state’s “bail system is irrevocably broken.”
“You cannot just sit on the bench and deny a bond reduction because you’re afraid of my client, because he’s young and he’s black, without articulating that,” Betts said. “You cannot hide behind your robe as a judge, and essentially — essentially — make decisions time and time again that are not just biased, but are systematically racist. It happens every single day.”
Connecticut Sentencing Commission was established under Public Act 10-129 to review on an ongoing basis the criminal justice system and sentencing policies.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been unsuccessful so far in getting the General Assembly to back his Second Chance 2.0 legislation, which would eliminate bail bonds for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders and allow 18- to 20-year-olds to be tried as juveniles.
It’s the latter part of Malloy’s proposed legislation that caused most lawmakers to withhold their support for the legislation, but in the end even the elimination of bail bonds became contentious.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, fearful it would cost them votes this November, believed the legislation was soft on those convicted of crimes. Some were also hesitant about giving younger people the ability to have their cases decided in a juvenile court that’s not open to the public.
Betts told the Sentencing Commission, which is made up of lawyers, law enforcement officials, legislators, and victim and social services advocates, that they need to ask themselves, “What is the function and purpose of the bond?”
“Is it to keep people incarcerated or is it to ensure that they return to court?” asked Betts. “Poverty stricken people have no hope of paying (bond).”
Betts added that a vast majority of those sitting in jails unable to afford bond are there on drug offenses. “Just because you are a drug addict,” said Betts, “doesn’t mean you won’t return to court.”
While Betts was the most powerful critic of the state’s current bail system at the public hearing, he had plenty of company.
Suzanne Bates, policy director of the Yankee Institute, told the commission: “Too many people are stuck in jail unable to pay bail for crimes they likely won’t be sentenced to jail for.”
Also testifying was David McGuire, the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-CT).
“Bail should be based on a person’s flight risk or danger to society, not on the money in his or her pocket. Right now, approximately 235 people are being held pretrial on bonds of $5,000 or less,” McGuire said.
“Many of these people are accused of minor, non-violent crimes, including drug possession; they have not been convicted of a crime, they are supposed to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, and yet they remain in jail because they lack the resources to pay their way free.”
This flies in the face of our Constitution’s promises of equal protection, due process, and freedom from excessive bail,” McGuire said. “In reality, any bail amount is excessive to someone without the means to pay it, and a bail system that penalizes people for being poor is the modern equivalent of a debtor’s prison.”
The Sentencing Commission spent some time at the public hearing talking about two areas of the country that have either gone — or are about to go to — bail reform systems: Washington, D.C. and the state of New Jersey.
In New Jersey, as of Jan. 1, 2017, bail will be based on risk, according to the New Jersey Bar Association’s description of the law. The Bar Association describes the law as “permitting supervised release of low-risk individuals who do not threaten the security of their communities.”
“At the same time, judges will be able to deny bail to defendants who are considered a danger, a flight risk, or a threat to obstruct justice,” the Bar Association’s description of the new law states.
Washington, D.C. has had a similar bail system in place for more than two decades.
Yankee Institute’s Bates said her research shows keeping people in jail in Connecticut can cost “up to $120 per day,” stating there could be cost savings realized by having less people incarcerated.
But Sentencing Commission member Robert Farr, an attorney, said it is his understanding that jurisdictions that have gone or are considering going to a more lenient bail system also “have an expensive monitoring follow-up system in place that the state of Connecticut likely can’t afford.”
Farr added: “Considering the financial situation the state is currently in, do we need to worry that we would be letting people out without the proper supervision in place?”