OPINION: There is a need to make it possible for more people to be released on bail

By Howard Spence

In America, some people are charged with a crime without any credible investigation and proof, then put into jail and left there for a long time awaiting trial – despite their protests that they are innocent… That happened to a poor 16 year old black kid named Kalief Browder, who was detained in Reikers Island jail over 3 years awaiting trial with a bail of $10,000 that neither he nor his family could afford.

Because Browder refused to confess to a crime he did not commit, he was subjected to beatings, assaults, inhumane treatment and aggression from jail guards and other inmates. After over 3 years, Browder was “just released” one day – because the local prosecutor finally acknowledged that there was no case against him. Shortly after his release from jail, Browder committed suicide last month.

People who have not been convicted of a crime should not be routinely required or pressured by institutional indifference of our criminal justice system to either plead guilty to crimes which they claim they have not committed, or to sit in jails for extended periods of time just because they are “not important,” or because they don’t have money to meet high bail bonds which may be set by courts.

In Eaton County last week during budget hearings, Judge Jan Cunningham and Judge Thomas Byerley of the Eaton County Circuit Court attempted to make it possible for more people to be released on bail pending trial by requesting that the Commissioners fund a new part time pretrial release Monitoring staff position at a cost of only twenty nine thousand dollars per year. Judge Cunningham stated that if the Board of Commissioners funded this position more people could actually be safely released on bail and that with some pretrial supervision, many bails likely could be lower, and fewer accused would need to be retained in jail pending trial.

Twenty nine thousand dollars seems like a small price to pay for more individuals to have a better opportunity to enjoy their constitutional right to bail pending trial and their presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The members of our Ways and Means Committee decided not to recommend funding of this $29,000 position. That “budgetary” decision not to facilitate more releases of accused persons with this pretrial monitoring program calls into question the values and priorities of some of our elected officials regarding the civil liberties and rights of the accused.

In some ways that budgetary decision is “penny wise and pound foolish” in that many more taxpayers’ dollars are being needlessly wasted to house people in our jail when they could be free on bail in the community – monitored pursuant to the discretion of our judges. Our priority as county commissioners should be to allow as many people to be released on bail as can safely be justified. No person who is subsequently acquitted of the crime for which they have been charged should be required to pay for that pretrial bail monitoring supervision.

 Howard T. Spence is Eaton County Commissioner representing residents in Delta Township. He is a licensed attorney, arbitrator, and former law judge.

This article was printed in the July 26, 2105 – August 8, 2015 edition.