Michigan Cash Bail System In Need of Substantial Reform

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Patrick Barone is a criminal defense lawyer, licensed to practice in the state of Michigan. His published works, teaching experience and impressive number of case wins has earned him an esteemed position in the legal community.

A recent report by Bridge Magazine takes a hard look at the true cost of Michigan’s cash bail system. Analyzing statewide data from various studies, the article finds that a shockingly high proportion of Michigan’s prison population are behind bars solely because they cannot afford to pay their bail amount. Although many are first-time offenders charged with minor offenses, they often remain imprisoned for days or even weeks awaiting their trial date.

In addition to the enormous cost to taxpayers of housing, securing and feeding an ever-increasing prison population, studies have shown that offenders who are incarcerated are more likely to commit future crimes.

In Michigan, where the traditional bail bonds system controls who spends their pretrial period behind bars, whether or not a defendant will be able to make bail is determined solely by their ability to pay. Advocates of bail reform have rallied around the tragic death of a Grand Rapids teen who died in prison while awaiting trial on a petty theft charge as an example of the true cost of this unfair and outdated system.

Dibrell Niyomugabo was only 17 years old when he was charged with petty theft and minor property damage after an officer discovered him asleep in someone else’s vehicle in the early morning hours last January.

Following his initial arrest, Niyomugabo was incarcerated for the rest of his tragically brief life. Along with multiple other defendants, he pled not guilty during an arraignment that took place via video feed inside the prison. He never saw the judge in person. Because he was unable to afford the $200 bail amount set for him, he remained incarcerated to await his trial date.

Three days later, he was discovered by prison officers unconscious, with a bed sheet wrapped around his neck. He never recovered, dying less than a week after his initial arrest. Both crimes he was charged with were misdemeanor offenses, which would have typically resulted in a community service sentence.

Niyomugabo’s case is a pointed example of the damage that can be done by even a few days in a state prison. While most defendants survive their pretrial incarceration, those who are unable to afford bail often find their entire lives upended by the time they are finally released, even if they manage to avoid conviction. An unexplained absence of even a few days is enough to result in the loss of employment, which in turn can quickly lead to a loss of housing for poor defendants.

In addition to the immediate consequences of being separated from their families, jobs, and responsibilities, pre-trial imprisonment has been shown to lower the odds of ultimate criminal rehabilitation.

Indigent defendants who cannot afford to post bail and are also more likely to plead guilty in an effort to streamline the adjudication process and take advantage of time already served, often resulting in a permanent criminal record. These defendants are typically poorly informed and desperate by the time they are offered plea deals, that are rarely in their best interests.

Advocates of reforming Michigan’s current bail bond system point to other states that have seen improvement in crime rates and a reduction in their prison populations after eliminating cash-based bonds. Although Michigan’s state bond system is concerned solely with a defendant’s ability to pay, district judges are nonetheless given some discretion to take other factors into account.

As a result, pretrial incarceration rates vary widely among counties, as those judges who voluntarily consider external factors when setting bond are less likely to incarcerate defendants facing minor charges, regardless of whether or not they can afford to post their bail.

In places like Washington DC, where the cash bail system has undergone major reform, defendants are released based on an assessment that takes into account their likelihood to show up for their trial date, as well as their criminal history and propensity to commit further crimes.

Low-income and indigent defendants facing minor charges are typically not a danger to the community and do not pose a serious flight risk, as those who unable to afford a relatively low bail amount most likely cannot afford to flee their community.

Although roughly 90 percent of DC defendants are released following their arrests under the reformed system, over 95 percent nonetheless show up on their trial date and stay out of trouble in the interim. Advocates of reform feel the opportunity to continue with one’s life while awaiting trial should be guaranteed to all of Michigan’s residents, regardless of their ability to pay a bond amount.


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