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Bail clampdowns don't match what research says about suspects, experts say

Amanda Hernández, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

Crime is shaping up as a potent election issue, and one of the key points of debate is over bail: Which suspects should be jailed before trial, and which ones should be released on bond — and for how much money?

Some conservatives argue that lenient bail policies put suspects who are likely to commit crimes before their upcoming court hearings, or who might skip bail altogether, back on the street. But some progressives say research does not support that contention. They argue that detaining defendants because they can’t afford financial bonds is unfair, and note that such defendants are disproportionately Black, Latino and low income.

Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico have moved away from the use of money bonds. But other states, such as Georgia and New York, are moving in the opposite direction, implementing stricter rules. Tennessee is considering a constitutional amendment that would give judges more discretion to deny bail amid concerns about rising crime rates.

Politicians on both sides of the debate often connect bail policy to crime rates. But experts say doing so is problematic, because so much of the crime data that states and cities use is unreliable.

The reality, experts say, is that most crime data is too unreliable to pinpoint specific policies as the sole cause of increasing or decreasing crime rates. The bail system also is oftentimes misunderstood as a form of punishment rather than the process for releasing individuals before trial under certain conditions.

“There’s nothing out there that shows a correlation or a connection of any sort between increasing the rates of pretrial release and the rates of crime,” said Spurgeon Kennedy, vice president of the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice research organization. Kennedy previously served as president of the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies.

 

These misconceptions about crime can leave voters vulnerable to misinformation ahead of local and national elections.

“If you ask the typical person on the streets, ‘Do you think crime is up or down over the last year,’ they will tell you, ‘Oh, it’s up. It’s way up.’ But we’ve seen reductions in crime overall and also in violent crime,” Kennedy said. “So the facts don’t follow the argument, and that’s unfortunate because that makes it much more easier to keep this out as a political football.”

Both chambers of Georgia’s legislature passed a bill this month that would add 30 additional felony and misdemeanor crimes to the state’s list of bail-restricted offenses, which means that people accused of those crimes would be required to post cash bail. They include charges of unlawful assembly, racketeering, domestic terrorism and possession of marijuana.

The bill also would prevent any individuals or organizations from posting cash bail more than three times per year unless they establish themselves as bail bonding companies, severely limiting charitable bail funds. The bill is now headed to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

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