When Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned one of his most famous writings, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he was detained in an Alabama jail cell on a money bond. Even though Dr. King posed no risk of danger to the community and there was no risk that he would leave Alabama and not return for future court proceedings—the only two legitimate purposes of imposing bond—his release from jail was conditioned on payment of a monetary bond.The same money-based bail system still exists and routinely results in days, weeks, and even months of pretrial detention for non-violent defendants who are simply too poor to make bail–—disproportionately, men and women who are African American and Latino.
In a cruel irony, in 2014, a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)–an organization founded by Dr. King–testified against New Jersey legislation designed to reform the money-based system. Although the proposed law would release of thousands of nonviolent, low-risk pretrial defendants and reserve pretrial detention only for defendants found to be dangerous, some suggested that the proposal was “like slavery.”
Though inaccurate and ultimately ineffective in derailing New Jersey law, such opposition highlighted the urgent need for more direct involvement of the national civil rights community in bail reform movements. The Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative was created to unite these two communities in the shared goal of reforming unfair bail practices that discriminate against the poor.
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC DISPARITIES IN BAIL AND PRETRIAL DETENTION
On November 12, 2015, PRJI held a roundtable of bail reform advocates, civil rights lawyers, community organizers, and representatives from federal and state government that focused on bail reform as a civil rights issue. Vanita Gupta, head of the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, provided a keynote address on the need to address racial and ethnic disparities in bail and pretrial detention. Other topics raised in the roundtable included
- the causes and consequences of bail disparities;
- alternatives to money bonds and pretrial detention;
- ways to achieve bail reform through litigation, legislation and other means; and
- the role of the civil rights community in reform efforts.
The first panel of the conference involved a discussion of the research on racial and ethnic disparities in bail by Dr. Stephen Demuth and Dr. Traci Schlesinger.
The second panel was a discussion of what a fully functioning pretrial services agency looks like from the initial diagnostic risk assessment, to community supervision and, where appropriate, treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.
Three very different approaches to bail reform were discussed by Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law, Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and Cherise Fanno Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute.
On the final panel, Juan Cartegena of Latino Justice PRLDEF, Monique Dixon of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights all spoke passionately on why bail reform is a civil right and what steps each of their respective organizations can take to incorporate bail reform into their criminal justice reform agenda.
EXAMPLES OF REFORM EFFORTS
RACE & BAIL IN NEW JERSEY
The New Jersey bail reform bill, largely drafted by the New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is one of the most significant bail reform victories in the country to date. The new law will prevent thousands of people from languishing behind bars simply because they cannot afford the cost of bail.
RACIAL DISPARITIES & BAIL REFORM IN KENTUCKY
Even without a major research effort, it was plain that, until recent reforms, defendants in Kentucky were being detained far more often than they were released pretrial. Some speculate that the marketplace drove bond amounts too high, where those with means could secure release and the poor were left to languish.
VOICES FOR PRETRIAL RACIAL JUSTICE
“At least in my county, there is simply no question that the bail decision has a disparate impact on people of color. I believe there needs to be changes in the way the criminal justice system handles these low-level criminal cases on the front end of the criminal justice system. ”
~Robert D. James, Jr.
Dekalb County District Attorney