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Supreme Court committee studying alternatives to bail

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The state’s new criminal code reconfigured crimes and punishments but while offenders may face different outcomes, some will still languish in jail prior to trial because they do not have the money needed to be released.

Bail is the primary way defendants get out of jail in Indiana. Usually courts order offenders to either pay cash to the court or use a bail agent to post a surety bond to get released from county detention. Those who do not have the money to pay bail stay behind bars.

During the 2013 and 2014 sessions of the Indiana General Assembly, legislation was introduced that would have made small changes but largely left the current bail system in place. The Indiana Supreme Court has since convened a special committee to examine alternative pretrial release programs which would not end bail in Indiana but could significantly reduce its use.

The Committee to Study Evidence-Based Pretrial Release was established by Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson in December 2013. The Supreme Court wants a study and evaluation of the risk-assessment tools that are available to determine when pretrial release is appropriate and under what conditions.

Criminal defense attorney Stephen Dillon makes a strong argument for change with the simple assertion that the state’s current bail system is unfair. Rich defendants can get out of jail before their trial while poor defendants have to remain in custody.

Dillon, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association Criminal Justice Section, is a member of the Supreme Court’s pretrial study committee. Echoing the thinking behind evidence-based forms of pretrial release, he advocates basing the decision to discharge not on money but on whether the defendant is a danger to the public or a flight risk.

Among the objectives the Supreme Court gave the study committee was finding a way to give all accused individuals access to release regardless of their personal wealth. In addition, the court asked the committee to report on avenues to establish a release system that is proportional to the risks the defendant presents; will enable offenders to continue their normal lives and employment as much as possible; and will allow accused persons to receive treatment and rehabilitative services.

The 14-member study committee is made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and state legislators.

Release based on risk

Pretrial release has become a key issue with the implementation of the new criminal code. Committee member State Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, pointed out the study committee is addressing the concern that many local officials have about jail overcrowding.

The new code aims to keep low-level, non-violent offenders in the county jails rather than place them in the Indiana Department of Correction. Having some alternatives to bail could provide a better way to reduce the inmate population since a significant proportion of people are currently in the local jails because they cannot afford the cash or surety bond, he said.

Both Dillon and McMillin noted the present bail system does not consider an offender’s risk of committing another crime while on pretrial release. Instead, county jails have a bail schedule based on the level of offense. If the accused has the money, the cell door can swing open.

In Kentucky, the process is different.

Within 24 hours of being arrested, every defendant undergoes a risk assessment that largely consists of a state and national criminal background check as well as a brief interview. Then the defendant is ranked as being of low-, moderate- or high-risk, and the pretrial officers make a recommendation to the local judge.

Next, the judge decides the terms of any pretrial release. While in all cases the bench has the discretion to add conditions, generally low-risk offenders are released on recognizance and moderate-risk offenders are also released but monitored. Judges are given complete discretion regarding high-risk offenders.

Bail is still an option, and judges can impose a monetary condition to release. However, the funds are paid directly to the courts.

“Research has shown time and time again that posting money has no bearing on returning to court or risk to the public,” said Tara Klute, general manager of the Kentucky Division of Pretrial Services.

The success of Kentucky’s program is clearly illustrated in the statistics. In fiscal year 2014, a total of 216,760 individuals were arrested in the Bluegrass State. Of the 68 percent who obtained pretrial release, 87 percent appeared for court hearings and 92 percent did not commit another crime while on release.

Convincing all 92 counties

Northwest Indiana’s Porter County has had a supervised pretrial release program for more than 20 years. Defendants are classified as low-, moderate- or high-risk and assessed for whether they need treatment for a substance abuse or mental health issue.

According to Stephen Meyer, chief probation officer at the Porter County Probation Department, the local jail is one of the few in the state that is under capacity. Also, even though Porter County is the ninth-largest county in Indiana, 40 other counties are sending more inmates to the DOC.

Meyer, who is a member of the study committee, said counties are receptive to looking at what can be done better, yet they can be resistant to change. That gives the committee a “daunting task,” he said, of trying to pull all the players together and consider alternatives to bail.

Klute attributes Kentucky’s ability to get all its counties to comply with pretrial release to the Legislature. The Statehouse passed measures outlawing commercial bail bonds in 1976 and mandated judges use pretrial risk assessment reports in 2011.

Getting all 92 counties in Indiana to agree to institute alternatives to bail will be difficult, McMillin acknowledged. As happened in Kentucky, he believes the Indiana General Assembly will have to legislatively address pretrial release.

The committee has previously met twice and plans to meet again in August. No deadline has been set for the committee to submit its report to the Supreme Court.•

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

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