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Dickson: Only judges to decide pretrial release

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In Indiana, many individuals arrested for criminal offenses languish behind bars because they do not have the resources to buy their way out prior to trial.

Whether cash or surety bond, often courts use money as a condition for pretrial release. Consequently, people of limited means may be held in the county jail awaiting trial longer than they would be sentenced to serve if convicted of the crime.

“That’s not fair,” said Indiana Justice Brent Dickson. “We have a presumption of innocence and yet we keep people in jail because they’re not paying money. That’s wrong.”

Dickson Dickson

To provide another option, Dickson, while chief justice, led the Indiana Supreme Court to establish the Committee to Study Evidence-Based Pretrial Release. The group, consisting of judges, legislators, prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers, is tasked with examining and evaluating risk-assessment tools used by courts around the country to determine which defendants to release before trial. At the end of its review, the committee will submit recommendations to the Supreme Court for implementation of the tools.

Dickson formed the study committee, in part, to ensure the judiciary retains its function of making decisions regarding pretrial release. He pointed to attempts in the Legislature to alter the way trial judges handle pretrial release and bail.

Last summer, when the Commission on Courts tried to approve a proposed bill that would have allowed defendants to choose between a surety bond and cash bail, Dickson pushed back. He raised concerns that the measure would limit judges’ ability to release defendants on their own recognizance and to use risk-assessment tools when deciding whom to release and under what conditions.

During the 2014 session of the Indiana General Assembly, two bills concerning bail were introduced in the Senate, but both stalled in committees.

Dickson drew a line between the responsibility of the judiciary and the purview of the Legislature. Surety bonds are a product of the insurance industry, he said, and certainly the Statehouse can regulate the insurance industry.

“But anything having to do with the way the courts use these or anything that might affect the judge’s discretion to decide how best to ensure that someone will return for trial is exclusively a judicial function,” Dickson said. “And we’re trying to help our trial judges responsibly exercise that function.”

Cash or bond

St. Joseph County is one of a handful of counties in Indiana to rarely use surety bonds, primarily requiring defendants to post cash bonds to be released. The money may be subsequently applied to cover any fees, fines or attorney costs, said St. Joseph Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch. He disputed a common contention among bail bond agents that the funds are used as a revenue stream for the court.

sexton Sexton

Gotsch, a member of the study committee, questioned the need for surety bonds. He noted that in the 1800s and 1900s, bail bond agents were necessary because people could not always access their money. But now with ATMs, they can get cash at any time to bail someone out of jail.

Dickson said he does not intend for the study committee to look for ways to abolish the surety bail system in Indiana.

Lee Sexton, president of the Indiana Surety Bail Agents Association, agreed some people who are arrested “truly deserve” to be released on their own recognizance, such as those accused of minor thefts and public intoxication.

However, Sexton asked in all the conversations about pretrial release, where is the concern for the victims of violent crime?

Bail agents, he said, help provide victims some relief by taking responsibility for the individuals arrested for serious crimes like battery, burglary, drug dealing and rape. The agents keep tabs on these offenders and ensure their appearance in court. Agents have to pay the full bail amount for any defendant who fails to appear, giving agents an incentive to find them and bring them back to the jurisdiction to stand trial.

This is done, Sexton said, at no cost to the taxpayers. He charged that pretrial release programs, on the other hand, will pull from public coffers because the state or local governments will be taking over the duties performed by bond agents.

Sexton also said his association would have liked a seat on the study committee. The agents want the opportunity to tell their story.

Dickson said the committee did not need input from the bond agents.

“This is not about surety bonds,” Dickson said. “This is about how judges do things without surety bonds for people who aren’t dangerous.”

Need for an alternative

Risk-assessment tools are touted as providing information to judges about whether an offender will reappear for court dates and whether conditions, like enrollment in a drug counseling program or electronic monitoring, should be a part of the release.

Dickson said the extensive work in evidence-based practices for assessing risk also encouraged him to convene the study committee. The research has shown, he said, communities can save taxpayer dollars and reform defendants when courts employ these proven methods to determine who should be released without bail.

In St. Joseph County, Gotsch sees a need for an alternative.

He pointed to the local jail where defendants who cannot afford bail, including those arrested for minor offenses, can stay in jail for 30 to 90 days before they get to the courtroom. Then, he said, they are usually sentenced to time served for crimes that would have put them in jail for just a few days.

The situation is not unique to northern Indiana. Citing statewide statistics presented to the study committee, Gotsch said 67 percent of individuals in Indiana jails are being held pretrial.

Taking such a long time to adjudicate crimes is the reality. Gotsch conceded courts should look for ways to move faster but the process to prepare and hold a trial takes time.

“I think judges need to look at the whole situation and recognize we’re holding a lot of people pretrial and the state is spending a lot of money to hold them pretrial and it may not be the best solution,” Gotsch said.

Dickson hopes the study committee will offer at least some preliminary recommendations by the end of the year. He wants the group to formulate standards to help trial judges on how to use the risk-assessment tools and possibly develop some guidelines outlining how much weight should be given to risk assessment versus other factors.

“I definitely do not want to inhibit the full discretion of our trial judges,” Dickson said. “But I do want to encourage them to release non-serious arrestees for non-serious crimes whenever possible and to use the risk-assessment tool to help make that decision.”•

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  1. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  2. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  3. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  4. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

  5. I'm not sure what's more depressing: the fact that people would pay $35,000 per year to attend an unaccredited law school, or the fact that the same people "are hanging in there and willing to follow the dean’s lead in going forward" after the same school fails to gain accreditation, rendering their $70,000 and counting education worthless. Maybe it's a good thing these people can't sit for the bar.

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