In some public remarks I was making recently, I emphasized the important role that bail reform plays in making a dent in our state’s massive overincarceration rates. When a person raised their hand and asked why that was important, it struck me that there are a whole lot of people who support reform but know nothing about why bail is such a critical issue. Here’s why:
1. On average 70% of people in county jails are there prior to trial. Bail is supposed to be a way to secure reappearance in court, but often it becomes a mechanism for coercion because people can’t afford to pay it. We are jailing people who are poor and letting people with money go free.
Many counties could see savings of several hundred thousand dollars per year by releasing defendants in a timely fashion without monetary conditions. I’m not saying we just let everyone out willy nilly. We have the capability of determining individually who is a flight risk and who is a danger to society. But it’s not happening. You can’t pay bail? Bam! You’re in the slammer, flight risk or not. And on our dime.
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2. People accused of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses who can’t pay bail spend an average of two to six weeks in jail waiting for their day in court. In some Oklahoma counties, the average goes as high as nearly six months for people accused of nonviolent felonies! Studies show that longer periods spent in jail before trial can increase the likelihood of recidivism, making the public less safe.
I am a co-author of Senate Bill 252, which would ensure that defendants have an initial court appearance within 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays), so that people who don’t need to be in jail aren’t there, which would save tax money to be invested better elsewhere.
3. Unaffordable money bail punishes families and communities that bear the burden of trying to raise enough money to pay a bondsman. We need to change the system to focus on alternatives to money bail and encourage the players in the criminal legal system to make individualized assessments of the ability of defendants to pay. Remember that many of the people sitting in our jails prior to trial are employed. Do we want them to lose their job? Yes, they got arrested, which is not good, but does that mean they are automatically guilty? No. Again, bail is only supposed to be a mechanism to ensure reappearance in court, which is where we determine guilt or innocence. Bail shouldn’t be a sentence in and of itself.
4. Pretrial incarceration of women in Oklahoma is an issue that affects thousands of children. The growth of incarcerated women is outpacing men by 50%, and 80% of women in jail are the primary caretakers of one or more children. Plus, women are generally poorer than men. That means their inability to pay cash bail leads to more of them being placed in the slammer, guilty or not. Plus, we now are painfully aware that having a parent in jail is a very traumatic experience for a child with negative effects in communities and schools. We must start using individualized assessments before trial with a focus on a presumption of innocence for those accused of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. SB 252 keeps more Oklahoma families whole, and that helps kids, which helps all of us.
5. Some 95% of cases are decided by plea agreement, and often that occurs where poor people feel coerced to plead guilty to get out of jail. High bail amounts and pretrial incarceration increases prosecutors’ leverage and decreases the chances for a fair trial. SB 252 refocuses our system on justice for all, not just for those who can afford it.
Meloyde Blancett, a Democrat, represents House District 78 in the Oklahoma House.