To bail or not to bail, ask Michigan lawmakers

Under Michigan's current system, bail is less restrictive for wealthier people, and can allow actual violent offenders to return to the community.

Under Michigan's current system, bail is less restrictive for wealthier people, and can allow actual violent offenders to return to the community.

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Michigan’s bail system punishes poor people and should consider risk of flight, the ability to pay and other circumstances when deciding to grant it, say reform advocates.

About half of all Americans have $500 or less saved for emergencies, said John Cooper, the executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, a justice change advocacy group.

“So if you get pulled over without insurance and your bail is $500, you can’t get out,” he said.

It is a big issue in Detroit, where high car insurance costs and minor speeding offenses can pile on, said Rep. Stephanie Young, D-Detroit.

“So, oftentimes we have folks in jail because they cannot post bond,” Young said. 

People can lose their jobs and their homes because of this, said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.

“We’re sort of creating this failure event for people living on the edge,” LaGrand said. “Then we blame them when they fail.”

A bipartisan group of legislators, including Young and LaGrand, have introduced seven bills to “decouple wealth from detention.” They await hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.

Thiepackage would require more information on finances and past history to help judges decide whether to grant bail, LaGrand said. The bills would remove the need for bail for those accused of most misdemeanors, as they don’t present a threat.

Bail doesn’t make sense for some offenses, said Jeff Clayton, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a national organization representing the bail industry. But removing too many bail-eligible offenses could limit the discretion of judges. 

He said he doesn’t find the Michigan proposal reasonable.

“More people will be released under the more violent categories of crime as a result of these reforms as well,” he said.

Concerns over community safety and security should be considered, LaGrand said, but cash bond systems can make a community less safe. 

The proposed changes would not just remove bail costs for minor crimes, he said. It also would restrict bail options for violent cases.

Under the current system, bail is less restrictive for wealthier people, LaGrand said, and can allow actual violent offenders to return to the community.

“Detention should be a byproduct of risk, not a byproduct of wealth,” LaGrand said.

The legislation still would require bail in serious cases, he said. Most misdemeanors should not require bail, but the legislation makes exceptions for crimes like domestic violence.

Young said, “This isn’t for violent criminals. It is designed to get folks out of the system and back to living their lives until they have to appear.”

The American Bail Coalition supports some aspects of this package, Clayton said. There should be greater due process and removing bail consideration for some minor offenses. But he said the cash bail system should be preserved.

“It creates a proper balance between liberty and detention and defendants rights,” Clayton said. “And I think it creates an incentive for defendants to return to court.”

But Joshua Hoe, a Safe & Just Michigan policy analyst, said that hasn’t happened in states that have changed their bail laws.

Thoughtful changes do not lead to crime, he said.

“Our version of bail reform is not as broad, and it focuses on both the risk of harm and non- appearance.” Hoe said. 

LaGrand said using money to determine risk disproportionately impacts poor people. Given correlations between wealth and race, it also means a bigger impact on people of color.

Bail jeopardizes the livelihoods of those who can’t afford it, Young said. People can lose their children if they cannot care for them because they cannot afford it. 

Cooper said, “Many people are angry about child separation at the border. But that’s happening every day in Michigan cities because of things like cash bail.”