By ZARIA PHILLIPS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Advocates are launching a two-prong effort to reform Michigan’s system of bail that they say is too high for low-income people and forces them into jail while awaiting trial.
The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the 36th District Court in Detroit over excessive bail. The action came just after state lawmakers in March proposed a package of bail reforms.
Bail is money pledged to release an individual charged with a crime but ensure that they will appear in court. The money is forfeited if they don’t appear.
Supporters of reform say that too often people cannot afford to bail their family members out of jail, even if the evidence against them is scant.
“This is a statewide problem of family members being locked up in jail because they can’t afford bail,” said Ann Mullen, the communications director for the Michigan ACLU. “A man in Grand Rapids lost someone who hung himself in jail because he could not afford bail.”
The problem is not confined to large urban areas. The Upper Peninsula struggles with excessive bail as well, said Antonio Ruiz, an attorney for Superior Law PLLC in Marquette.
“Judges have sole discretion over how high to set bail. Ability to pay is not factored in at all,” Ruiz said. “I see people here struggle with bail all the time. I have an 18-year-old client with no prior criminal history with bail set at $600,000 by the Delta County Court nearby. He’s been in jail since this past September.”
The ACLU lawsuit claims that giving poor people expensive bail is unconstitutional because they’re stuck in jail even though they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, introduced the reforms that would create a financial information form to help judges set bail that is relatively fair and create consistent rules among courts. It also would require district and circuit courts to submit bail data to the State Court Administrative Office to help monitor consistency.
The package also encourages a greater investment in community policing.
Michigan’s Legislative Black Caucus is pushing for legislation that would require judges to consider a person’s income when they set bail, said John Johnson, attorney and executive director of that caucus. They’ve asked attorneys across the state to support bail reform.
Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, is among the sponsors of the package.
“The bill package addresses the issues in the lawsuit, but everyone is focused on the lawsuit,” Johnson said. “You either get things done through legislation or litigation.”
While the lawsuit is focused on the Detroit Court, both Johnson and Mullen agree that excessive bail is a statewide problem.
“The ACLU has plaintiffs from across the state, but the 36th District Court is largest and probably the worst offender,” Johnson said.
Bail isn’t meant to be a punishment or to remove one’s freedom before they’re convicted, said Battle Creek attorney Anthony Elmore, who has advised the caucus. “When someone is charged, regardless of the amount of evidence, bail can still be set high.”
In setting bail, judges don’t have to require evidence to be shown or consider if the offense is violent, non-violent or a first offense, he said.
Prosecutors oppose bail reform because if someone can’t afford bail, they can squeeze them into a plea deal, Ruiz said.
That especially keeps low-income people and particularly people in communities of color stuck in the court system, Elmore said.
“The problem is that these high bails are given to people who aren’t guilty,” Elmore said. “I knew a young man who stayed in jail for almost two years, he could hardly afford my services.
“I’m not sure whether or not this lawsuit will help push the legislation, but I’m hoping it’ll do something.”
The bills were introduced to the House and Senate with sponsorship from both parties They are pending before the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.