House Republicans called last week for a public hearing to apply legislative oversight to changes under consideration by the Judicial Branch that would lower bail requirements for defendants awaiting criminal proceedings.
Earlier this month, the Judiciary’s Rules Committee voted to recommend lowering the percentage of a bail a person must post in order to be released from a police department from 10% to 7%.
The changes to the Practice Book, which must be approved by a vote of state judges during a meeting next month, would also raise the maximum bond eligible for the program from $20,000 to $50,000.
In a press release Friday, Republican lawmakers called for a hearing of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee to weigh the new rules.
“This is no small change, and it carries considerable public safety implications for Connecticut residents—victims in particular,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said in a joint statement with Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield.
Rep. Craig Fishbein of Wallingford, the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that panel should hold the hearing before next month’s vote by state judges.
“To do otherwise undermines the public trust and underscores our concerns about non-elected officials overstepping the authority given to them by the legislature,” Fishbein said.
However, it is unclear whether the Legislative Branch has the authority to set policy which the Judicial Branch considers to be a matter of its own rules. When the Rules Committee recommended the change, state Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald said judicial officials would consider input from the legislature, but questioned its jurisdiction.
“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.
In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said there was a legitimate question which branch of state government had purview over the policy.
However, with two weeks left in the legislative session, Stafstrom said there were no plans to hold a hearing on a change in rules, which he said has traditionally been left to the Judicial Branch to set. He said bail, like discovery deadlines in civil cases, was a rule of practice.
“The purpose of it is to make sure someone shows up at court for their assigned court date,” Stafstrom said. “The notion that somehow victims are prejudiced because of our bail rules is hogwash. Bail is not intended as punishment.”
Stafstrom’s committee has advanced a resolution this year, which seeks to amend the state constitution to remove existing language that prevents criminal defendants from being held without bail in virtually all cases.
The amendment would give the legislature flexibility to rework a bail system, which Stafstrom argues currently leaves too many low income defendants being held in prison because they cannot afford bail and too many higher income defendants eligible for bail when they should be held.
“Our bail system is, frankly, a mess in Connecticut,” he said.
“If Adam Lanza walked out of Sandy Hook Elementary School, he would have been entitled to bail. If someone raped someone, goes out on bail, brutally raped someone again, we’d have to give them bail again,” Stafstrom said. “Look, I’m as liberal as it comes on some of these criminal justice reform issues but that’s a bridge too far, I think for everybody.”
If passed and eventually approved by voters, the amendment would put bail issues within the purview of the legislature.
“We need to take a robust look at our bail system,” he said. “The legislature absolutely has to be involved in that conversation but it’s not this piecemeal approach of ‘let’s hold a public hearing on some small change to the rules the Judicial Branch.’”