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Now is the Time for Criminal Justice Reform

In a highly polarized political climate and an unprecedented election cycle, there’s not much Democrats and Republicans agree on.  However, one unlikely issue is presenting both parties a chance to meet in the middle: criminal justice reform.

Republicans like Newt Gingrich view “mass incarceration” as a failure of big government, costing taxpayers over $75 billion dollars annually.  Democrats have long argued that the system disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.  Recently, both sides have introduced bills to address the issue. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) co-sponsored the Redeem Act in 2014, and last year, my Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Sentencing and Reform Act, both aimed at cutting incarceration rates.  The Justice Department has also taken a stand on criminal justice reform, filing an amicus brief last month supporting as unconstitutional, the holding of defendants in jail because he/she can’t afford a fixed bail amount.

As politicians and judges focus on fixing America’s broken criminal justice system, reforming the antiquated cash bail system could alleviate problems municipalities experience due to overcrowding. While there have been some successful challenges, the use of bail has only surged since the 1990’s, with a 50% increase in both the dollar amounts of bonds and the number of crimes for which bail is set.

On the surface, bail appears to be pretty simple. If you are charged with a crime, the court requires an amount of money as a guarantee you’ll show up for trial.  If you have the money it’s a minor hassle.  However, if you don’t, you face some serious choices: stay in jail to await trial; or plead guilty and hope for the best. If convicted, you will likely face barriers to employment and housing and may need public assistance for decades.

This system benefits the affluent and harms the poor.  Defendants with financial resources post bond and go on about their lives, even those facing serious charges.  Those who can’t afford bail end up paying instead with time behind bars.  Awaiting trial in overcrowded jails, inmates are routinely exposed to violence, filth and disease.  This affect all defendants, regardless of actual guilt, and only increases the odds of their someday returning.

Reformists advocate switching from bail to pretrial screening programs for low risk defendants, including individuals too poor to post bond, with no prior convictions and not considered a flight risk. Defendants are instead released back into the community under supervision, where they could prepare for court, return to their jobs and families.  Releasing such individuals would not jeopardize public safety but reduce overcrowding and public defender caseloads. Some organizations have taken creative steps until such reforms occur.  The Bronx Freedom Fund established in 2013 has helped hundreds of defendants post bail. 97% of the defendants they’ve helped have appeared for all scheduled court dates.

It’s past time to rethink our approach to criminal justice both locally and across the nation.  New York has the most expensive system costing taxpayers $60,000 a year per inmate. Dutchess County is set to expand our jail and sheriff’s office at a cost of $192 million making it the largest capital project ever undertaken by the County, nearly tripling our debt.

There are no shortage of reasons to think differently about bail.  Common sense reforms would improve public safety, reduce recidivism, protect civil rights, and save millions. It’s time to be selective about who gets locked up.  Let’s not put anyone in jail unless the only option we have left as a community is to put a person in a cage.  For too many, the time for bail reform was yesterday.

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Paul Donnelly teaches US History and Government at Poughkeepsie High School. He is also an instructor at Vassar College’s Urban Education Initiative.

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