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  March 8, 2017

Bail Reform: Should the Poor Continue to Pay?

Eze Jackson heads to Annapolis to talk to advocates for House Bill 1390 which will eliminate cash bail for non-violent offenders who cannot afford to pay
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EZE JACKSON: This is Eze Jackson, with The Real News Network. I'm sitting on a school bus right now, headed from Baltimore to Annapolis, where activists are going to support a bill, House Bill 13-90, that will make it where non-violent offenders, who could not afford to make bail, will not have to be held in jail.

DAYVON LOVE: So, HB 13-90, what it does... primarily it does two things, primarily. The first thing, is that it requires court commissioners, when dispensing bail pre-trial, to consider... to exhaust nine financial conditions for release, before they even consider cash bail. This is for any offence.

So, for instance, let's say you and I get into a fight, we get charged with second-degree assault. This law would say that the court commissioner should consider something like community mediation? So, a condition for our release needs to be, you go to community mediation, as opposed to paying some kind of cash bail. That's the last consideration.

Second thing it does, is that it institutes a risk assessment tool that requires public participation in the development of it. And what a risk assessment tool essentially does, is it would be the entity that would make the determination about whether a person gets released on their own recognizance, whether or not there are conditions for their release. You know, suggest to the court commissioner, and to the judge, what those conditions should be.

So, we really advocate for a community-based kind of risk assessment tool that would be bolstered by the bill that we're pushing forward. So, that's what the bill does, that we're here for today.

EZE JACKSON: Okay. And what are some of the biggest challenges right now that you face, in getting this bill passed?

DAYVON LOVE: Well, unfortunately, the bail bonds industry has really good relationships with some of the black legislators, so there's a very targeted effort by the bail bonds industry.

Especially, since we know this is the issue that disproportionately affects black people, that using black legislators, really to provide advocacy for their own bill. That's essentially a smokescreen, that wouldn't actually address the bail bonds problem. Though the bail bonds industry's problem, but it would actually help the bail bonds industry, the bill that they're putting forward. And so, that's been one of the biggest challenges.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Someone once said that politics was war by other means. And I think we're really having a political battle with the bail bonds industry, and the way they're trying to reframe the issue. So, as opposed to being against reform, they've actually sponsored their own bill, which looks like reform on the surface, but in reality it's a step backwards.

So, we actually have a rule here in Maryland that was just codified last month, in the Appeals Court, that says that judges have to look at non-financial conditions for release. Which are things like, we can let you out of jail if you go to drug treatment, we can let you out of jail if you go to community mediation.

So, all of these can be seen as alternatives to cash bail. And so, the bail bonds industry sponsored a bill, which said... it basically said that if you're poor -- they used the word indigent -- we can figure out ways for you to be able to pay cash bail –- we basically leave the cash bail system in place and figure out some mechanisms, where folks who are very poor, can maybe be able to deal with it a little bit better.

And so, that leaves the entire system in place. That leaves the profits made by bail bondsmen, which are extracted, largely from the poor, black communities, all of that is in place. So, it does everything that the lobbyists want. And so, they have lined up a lot of high-powered lobbyists to push this bill, which it looks like bail reform, if you're a lawmaker who's swamped, and have hundreds of bills on your plate. You want to pass bail reform, you pick up the bill that's in front of your face, not knowing it's actually written by the bail bonds industry.

So, it actually creates an interesting tactic of, instead of being against bail reform, they're sponsoring their own version of, "bail reform", which actually is a step backwards. So, we're dealing with the bail bonds industry's clout. And also the confusion produced by a bill called "bail reform," which is actually a step backwards, and actually assures and solidifies the bail bond industry, rather than regulating it, and addressing its social problems.

OLI LIGHTFOOT: It's an economic issue for bails bondsmen, you know, so they would say it's a public safety issue. If somebody hadn't even been found guilty of a crime, you know, why even hold them there period? You know, now, you maybe want to classify certain crimes, you know, such as murders and rapes and like that, but you got people that are sitting there in jail for petty crimes. Like, maybe just burglaries, or maybe even assaults, where they may have had a beef with someone.

You know, why hold those people in prison? Because that's where they are, in prison, until they can go to court. Either get found not guilty, or be convicted. So, why hold them in prison all that time, you know? It doesn't make any sense. Bail bondsmen, they want to continue to to making money, as they have been making.

At one time, right here in Baltimore City, you'd get out on bail, and you could go to court, and that would be it. Right now, that's not it. Bail bondsman system run right now, where they can put your whole house in jeopardy, you know? So, you can go to court and get found not guilty, and you still got to pay the bail bondsman.

EZE JACKSON: Right now, there's a lot of push back, of course, naturally from the bail bonds industry. And their narrative is that this is a public safety issue. What would you say to that?

TARIQ TOURE: I think that the simple fact that you had more health... more bail bonds places than health food stores in these communities, shows that they're making money off the backs of poor people, in the bail bonds industries. Not saying that they don't have a particular use. But I think the heavy influx of people that are engaging in this infrastructure of bail bonds, they don't want to see it go away, because it's a lucrative industry.

EZE JACKSON: One of the challenges I'm hearing, is that there are a lot of elected officials who are in the pockets of the bail bonds industry. What do you think would be a good way of combating that challenge?

TARIQ TOURE: Well, I think largely you have to get the money out of politics, and some of these large dollars shouldn't come back to somebody who isn't able to produce, again, this bail. Not being able to go home to their families, especially when it's crimes that they didn't even commit, you know?

I think about, even Kalief Browder, who... which is the huge case that everybody talked about across the country. That here was somebody who couldn't produce bail, off of the same system, and he ended up suffering in public view. Well, what about all the other people who are suffering right now under this, and have suffered?

EZE JACKSON: You bring up a good point, because the way the current structure is, it can lead to a lot of devastating things.

You bring up Kalief Browder, who eventually ended up committing suicide after getting out of jail. What kind of things can we do to get it out there to the public, to let them know how important, really, how crucial this is?

TARIQ TOURE: I think, number one, you know, at least somebody such as myself, I grew up in zip code 21229. I always constantly reiterate that me, being able to make it out, so and so-called, I'm going to college and things like that. Knowing that it's a whole swath of people, young men like myself, who weren't able to, partly because of institutions like this bail bonds, and cash bail. Just knowing that that's a part of that, and that there is another Kalief Browder happening every hour. And that those are not widely publicized, and to help distinguish that system, we need to have House Bill 13-90 passed, just so we can get started.

This is just like, you know, pushing the ball down the hill, this isn't even eradicating the whole issue. So, I think that's important, because these, right now, somebody's getting locked up and will be getting a cash bail, and not being able to pay for it. And probably is going to go through all the same mental trauma that brother Browder went through.

BOBBY HOLMES: Half the people sitting in jail, without an adequate assessment. Because, you know, we all can be honest; we have some folks that it's not in the best interests of public safety for them to be out in the streets. But I think there has to be a more efficient, and effective, tool to make that type of decision.

I'm not saying today this kid got caught with a dime bag. Or this kid got pulled with a couple of rocks. When you take them out of here because he's public... To me, he's not a public safety concern. Yes, he was doing some things that we may not have wanted him to do as a society, as the public, but I don't see him as a risk.

So, why should we have him sitting in jail? Possibly used... lose his job, just because he's selling drugs doesn't mean he doesn't have a job to help support himself. Or, a family to be traumatized, for his life to be impacted in some shape, form or fashion, just because we're saying he's a risk, without really knowing or assessing how much of a risk is he.

So, I don't also don't think that's a good use of taxpayer's dollars, just having someone to sit in jail.

OLI LIGHTFOOT: Advocates of House Bill 13-90 say that there's a serious concern, that many elected officials are in the pockets of the bail bonds industry, and that the bail bonds industry may have a very heavy influence on the outcome of this bill.

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