Earlier this month Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring announced that his office would no longer recommend requiring cash bond for people charged with crimes. Instead, prosecutors would recommend defendants either be held in jail or be given their freedom until the trial. Too many people are unable to raise cash for the bond, and Herring is concerned that the practice needlessly stuffs the city jail with poor defendants who may be innocent and pose no threat to the community.
Herring is not a social justice warrior. He’s a prosecutor who takes seriously his obligation to put bad guys in jail. But he’s also sensitive to the effect that the criminal justice system has on poor African-Americans. Holding someone in gaol until his (or her, but mostly his) trial interrupts his employment, disrupts his ability to meet his financial obligations, and deprives him of his freedom. The practice also imposes a burden on taxpayers to house, feed, and guard people who have yet to be convicted of a crime.
If the Richmond metro area were undergoing a horrendous crime wave, I might be inclined to err on the side of public safety. But crime continues to decline. As we approach end of April, Police Chief Alfred Durham reports heartening statistics, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Seven fewer homicides, 23 fewer people shot, 42 fewer robberies, 196 fewer burglaries, and an overall 6 percent drop in violent and property crimes compared to the same point last year. This would seem to be a propitious time to implement reforms to the criminal justice system, if it can be shown that reforms are needed.
When thinking about the causes of poverty, I find it useful to adopt two analytical frameworks: individual and institutional. Examining poverty at the level of the individual, we can see that some people are poor as a consequence of poor decisions they have made: They dropped out of school, they got pregnant before they got married, they abused alcohol or drugs, they committed crimes, they were unreliable employees, or they spent more money than they made and put themselves onto a treadmill of debt. And we can also see that institutional forces often work against them. Their schools were terrible. Politicians were corrupt. Jobs were scarce. They ran afoul of a criminal justice system that stacked the odds against them.
If we want to address poverty in Virginia and create a society where people can rise above their circumstances, then we need to adopt both frames of reference, Among other things, that means giving a closer look at the criminal justice system. I have written in the past about how jails and prisons can ease the re-entry of inmates into society by making sure they have such basic job-finding tools as drivers licenses and identity cards. And a strong case can be made that they system of cash bond disproportionately burdens the poor.
Herring’s order to stop recommending cash bond is just the first step, argues Adeola Ogunkeyede, director of the Civil Rights & Racial Injustice Program. While prosecutors may stop recommending cash bond, they aren’t always present when bail decisions are made — magistrates often make bail decisions when prosecutors aren’t around. Likewise, judges can override prosecutors’ recommendations.
In a Richmond Times-Dispatch column today, she writes: “Given this context it remains to be seen whether Herring’s decision to stop his prosecutors from recommending cash bond will reduce the number of people locked in jail pretrial in Richmond.” She concludes:
Moving forward, we encourage Herring to join advocates and communities disproportionately impacted by unjust bail practices — predominantly low-income communities of color — in championing measures that would unequivocally put Richmond on track to lead the way on meaningful bail reform in Virginia.
From what I gather, Herring has already joined the movement. Her remarks would be better aimed at magistrates and judges. More critically, I would like to see Ogunkeyede acknowledge that there is a balancing act between protecting the rights of the accused and protecting the community from the depredations of crime. As social justice warriors often seem to forget, “communities of color” are disproportionately victims of the criminals who live in their midst.
Still, all things considered, it is a fundamental principle of American justice that people are presumed innocent until found guilty. We should explore ways to keep not-convicted people out of jail, especially those accused of non-violent crimes who pose no threat to the public. Herring’s announcement is an important step forward and Ogunkeyede’s column is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.There are currently no comments highlighted.