She called attention to a system that unfairly keeps people in jail while awaiting trial.
The purpose of bail is to make sure suspects show up for court. The higher the bond, the less likely the person will skip town. A Texas judge took this to the extreme recently when she set bail at 4 billion dollars. A four and nine zeroes.
The patently absurd bond amount was the judge’s way of highlighting a disturbing trend. Prosecutors either request exorbitant bail (citing flight risk) or request bail be denied entirely (menace to society). In this case, bail was lowered appropriately after the judge made her point. But all too often, defendants sit in jail for months because they can’t afford the unreasonable bail amount.
$4 billion bail was jaw-dropping. That was exactly the point.
When a murder suspect turned himself in to police, Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown intended to set his bail at $100,000. Most people in Bell County, Texas, would be hard-pressed to raise that kind of money. But the prosecution argued for a bond of $1 million, virtually assuring the defendant would remain in jail until his trial. Miffed at the excessive bail request, Brown doubled down and set bail at … $4 billion.
She acknowledged that the multi-billion bond might violate the Eighth Amendment right against excessive bail. And in fact a district court judge reduced the man’s bail to a more reasonable $150,000. Brown’s point was that a million dollars might as well be four billion dollars – either way, it was out of reach for the defendant and his family.
Bail is leverage against the accused
A study by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found that law enforcement invokes flight risk or public safety far too frequently in bail requests. Nearly 75 percent of current inmates are sitting in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford to bond out. Statistically, only about 10 percent of people who post bail fail to show up for their court appearances. And only about 2 percent are true fugitives from justice.
When law enforcement requests a steep bail amount, they do not necessarily consider the person a serious threat to commit violence or skip town. It’s also a tactic. When a person cannot afford bail, prosecutors are in a much stronger position to extract a guilty plea. Cut a deal and go home to your family, or stay in jail for as long as it takes to get to trial. Excessive bail also cuts into the ability of the accused to hire a competent defense. Those who can’t afford a private lawyer must rely on public defenders, which also plays into the prosecution’s favor.
The Constitution prohibits excessive bail. For most defendants facing serious felony charges, even the 10 percent fee paid to a bail bondsman is a significant financial hardship. A good criminal defense attorney will fight for a reduced bond amount at arraignment or in a separate bail hearing.
Source: $4B bond meant as jab at trend of exorbitant bonds. (Associated Press)