Lawmakers and advocates across the political spectrum are joining together to propose changes to Michigan's cash bail system, which is under criticism for allowing low-income defendants to be jailed when they cannot afford to post bond.
Newly introduced legislation would allow more people accused of crimes to be released on their own recognizance before trial rather than have to pay. Judges could still set bail if they determine defendants pose an undue danger or there is a significant risk of them failing to appear in court.
Among those backing the bills is the state's top law enforcer, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, a former criminal defense attorney and prosecutor. She said she represented many clients who were incarcerated because of an inability to make bond even though they faced minor charges for which they would be sentenced to probation — not time behind bars. Others, she said, pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit so they could get out of jail and return to their families and jobs.
"When you keep people locked up for really no other reason than being poor, you're not helping society," Nessel said. "It actually increases recidivism rates, and it costs a lot of money to the state."
Bipartisan legislation proposed in the House and Senate last week would, among other things, prohibit judges from basing cash bail on a pre-established schedule of fixed amounts. They instead would have to impose the "least onerous" amount to ensure defendants' appearance and the safety of victims and the public, including by factoring in financial disclosure forms filled out by the accused.
A bill sponsor, Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids, said many people cannot pay $500 to make bail, so they effectively serve time while still being considered legally innocent.
"Half the population is going to fall on that hurdle. And if they fall, they're going to lose their jobs, they're going to lose their housing, their kids are going to be at risk," he said. "If half of America can't pass that test, we've got a problem."
Groups pushing for bail changes in the Republican-led Legislature include the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. LaGrand said law enforcement and business organizations are supportive, and judges back the principle "in concept." Newberry District Judge Beth Gibson, president of the Michigan District Judges Association, said the group has not taken a position on the bills but will discuss them at a meeting this week.
There is opposition, though.
When similar legislation was introduced late in the last two-year session, the American Bail Association — a trade association of bail insurance companies that underwrite bonds — criticized it as an attempt to "go soft on felony offenders in the name of helping the poor."
The industry highlighted a bill, for example, that would give judges discretion in child support cases by no longer requiring them to set bail at 25 percent of overdue payments or $500, whichever is greater. Requiring a bond ensures that a non-payer of child support will return to court or forfeit the money, which could go to whomever is owed the support, according to the group.
But the sponsor, Republican Rep. Tommy Brann of Wyoming, recounted how a cook at a restaurant he owns was jailed for being in arrears on child support.
"I believe everybody should support their children, and my cook does, too. But he can't do it in jail," he said. "It's just a vicious circle for the person that's going through this. ... He just gets buried, buried and buried more when he really wants to be at work supporting his kids and working at a job."
Nathan Willink, a general contractor in Grand Rapids, backs the legislation. He got a call in January from an employee who had been hired on a trial basis, did well but then did not show for work. Boom Jones needed money to post bond to be released from jail on two outstanding warrants of not paying child support.
Willink helped him, getting cash to a bail bondsman and deducting it from future paychecks.
"This shouldn't have been his hurdle" to employment, he said. "It should have been that he oversleeps or that he doesn't work hard or that he is disrespectful — not that he can't find $500 twice."