Connecticut Supreme Court
The Connecticut Supreme Court building in Hartford Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A Connecticut judicial panel voted unanimously on Monday to recommend lowering to 7% the portion of a bond, which a defendant must pay in cash in order to avoid incarceration while awaiting court proceedings on criminal charges. 

The change to the Connecticut Practice Book was recommended by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court during a meeting in Hartford, and represents an expansion of a four-year-old policy, which allowed low-income defendants to be released from a police department if they posted 10% of their bail in cash.

Any changes to the Practice Book will need to be approved by a vote of state judges during an annual meeting next month in order to go into effect.

The existing policy only applied to bond amounts of $20,000 or less. In addition to lowering the pretrial release threshold to 7%, Monday’s action also raised the maximum bond eligible for the program to $50,000.

The change comes at the request of the state sentencing commission. During a public hearing prior to Monday’s vote, Judge Robin Pavia, chair of the commission, said it would build on the successes of the earlier policy. 

“What we witnessed is that defendants who are struggling to afford that 10% cash bond are being detained on low-level offenses,” Pavia said. “This proposal is the result of a deliberative process undertaken by this diverse group of individuals throughout Connecticut, was overwhelmingly endorsed by the commission and thus submitted to you.”

Pavia told the committee that the 10% option had been predominantly used in low-level cases where the bond was set at around $1,000. Defendants with higher bonds had largely continued to use professional surety bonds, she said. 

The change was opposed by Republican legislators, who have argued that the Judiciary should refrain from modifying the state bail system until lawmakers have a chance to work through proposed changes before the legislature. 

“The last thing that residents, let alone crime victims, expect to see is our Judicial system make life easier for criminals,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said in a press release last week. 

Although Candelora and Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, submitted testimony objecting to the change, state Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald said that the Democratic and Republican leaders of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee did not offer any commentary.

McDonald, a former state senator who previously co-chaired the legislative committee, questioned whether the legislature had the authority to dictate bail policy to the Judicial Branch. 

“There’s a very good argument to be made that bail is purely a Judicial Branch function and not a Legislative Branch, but we’ve never had those hard lines. It is a communication,” McDonald said. However, he said judicial leaders would consider policies from lawmakers. 

“If the legislature steps up and gives us different input at some point, obviously we would take that into consideration,” he said. 

Monday’s hearing also drew opposition from several representatives of Connecticut’s bond industry, who view the expansion of the current 10% rule as a step toward eliminating the state’s surety bond system, which they argued was more successful at ensuring defendants’ appearance in court.  

“Surety bail does its job,” Andrew Bloom, executive vice president of 3-D Bail Bonds, said, “allowing defendants to remain free, allowing them to keep their jobs, giving them the court date reminders, offering them payment plans to those who need it and ensuring the appearance of those accused so victims have their day in court. In the end that’s what really matters: accountability.”

Bloom argued that the existing policy had been a failure in light of statistics indicating that the number of defendants in pretrial detention had risen since the 10% cash bail option went into effect. 

During the meeting, McDonald said he had “serious questions” about some of the numbers offered during the hearing and suggested that fluctuations in the pre-trial detention population had been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic which began just weeks after the program went into effect. The change passed Monday was recommended by a commission including law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, he said. 

“Frankly, I am more comfortable relying on their statistics and data than what I consider to be a somewhat loose recitation of data that was presented in some of the testimony,” McDonald said.