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The Unnecessary Cost of Cash Bail

On any given day, over 5,000 people in the state of Michigan are in jail awaiting their court date simply because they are poor. These defendants are not in jail because they pose a threat to society, or have been convicted of a crime, but simply because they are from a low income home and are unable to pay bail. This approach to pretrial detention is bad for defendants and the public, and should be reformed.

Cash bail (or bond) is a common condition of pre-trial release where a judge orders a defendant to make a refundable deposit to the court as an added incentive to appear for trial. If a person cannot pay, they can either pay a bail bonds agent a non-refundable fee of 10% of the bond amount to post bond on their behalf, or they remain in jail until trial. Often bail amounts to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and many people are unable to pay. Pretrial detention prevents defendants from going to work and making money, paying bills, providing and caring for family, and living a healthy lifestyle. Essentially, it prevents individuals from taking care of their responsibilities until trial. Because of this, those who cannot afford bail often end up losing their job, car, house, or even their children.

Additionally, when defendants are detained pretrial, tax payers are the ones who front the costs. This faulty cash bail system costs the tax-paying public an estimated $120 million a year in jail costs, funds which could be better used by cash-strapped counties. And while current Michigan law suggests that judges should consider an individual’s financial capacity when setting bail, the law does little to ensure this happens. In practice, such considerations rarely occur.

For all these reasons, Michigan’s laws around bail bonds need to be reformed. Thankfully, this is a task Grand Rapids Representative David LaGrand wants to take on. Rep. LaGrand has informed us that he will soon introduce a bill package to reform Michigan’s bail system. Two key policies of the bill package include banning pretrial detention based solely on an individual’s inability to pay bail, and asking courts to tailor pretrial conditions based on an individual’s threat and flight risk instead. These policy changes will promote public safety and court attendance without unnecessarily disrupting the lives of Michigan’s poor before they have been tried, and without needlessly spending tax-payer dollars.

Reforming the cash bail system in Michigan is one step towards a more just legal system. And if this bill packages passes, it will positively affect thousands of lives on a daily basis.

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