The drumbeat to reexamine the practice of cash bail in Indiana and nationally has grown louder in recent years as jails groan under the weight of overpopulation.
Nearly 12 million people were processed through U.S. jails between June 2010 and June 2011, according to a 2012 report by the Justice Policy Institute. “U.S. jails have operated at an average of 91 percent capacity since the year 2000,” the report said. “On any given day, 60 percent of the U.S. jail population is composed of people who are not convicted but are being held in detention as they await the resolution of their charge.”
The report said the use of financial release, primarily through commercial bonds, had increased by 32 percent from 1992 to 2006.
But an effort in a few counties in Indiana that will expand statewide aims to reverse that trend.
The Indiana Supreme Court in 2013 established the Committee to Study Evidence-Based Pretrial Release, which resulted in Criminal Rule 26, signed Sept. 7, 2016. The rule says that with exceptions for charges of murder or treason, an arrestee who isn’t a substantial flight risk or danger to themselves or others should be released without money bail or surety.
Separately, House Enrolled Act 1137 adopted in 2017 says the Indiana Supreme Court should adopt evidence-based risk assessment rules statewide by 2020. The rules will set standards to determine whether arrestees should be released to pretrial supervision or bail should be required.
Nine counties — Allen, Bartholomew, Hamilton, Hendricks, Jefferson, Monroe, St. Joseph, Starke and Tipton — were initially selected for a pilot program to begin using the Indiana Risk Assessment System, Pretrial Assessment Tool to evaluate arrestees. Grant and Porter counties were added later.
Two counties’ experiences
Hamilton Superior Judge Wayne Sturtevant said he was pleased with the results thus far.
“It just really makes sense to me to have some basis for releasing these people that you can point to that says, ‘OK, at least we’ve got this. We’ve talked to them,’” he said. “I don’t want to knock bail bondsmen, but I mean, basically the only concern they have is, ‘Do they have the money?’”
Stephanie Ruggles, Director of Pretrial Services for Hamilton County, said once it is determined an individual is eligible for pretrial release, what happens next varies from case to case.
“Hamilton County has four levels of supervision based on the Indiana Risk Assessment System, Pretrial Assessment Tool and the Release Matrix,” she said. “Release on Own Recognizance with Reminder does not require any face-to-face meetings with a pretrial officer. The person checks in within 24 hours of release from the jail. Basic supervision involves meeting with a pretrial officer every other month. Moderate supervision involves meeting with a pretrial officer monthly. Enhanced supervision involves meeting with a pretrial officer twice a month.” She said the agency also uses a court-date phone-call reminder system.
Hendricks Superior Judge Robert Freese said he approves of the pilot program and sees no correlation between money bail and getting someone to show up for court.
“People that can’t come up with 100 bucks sit in jail just because they can’t come up with 100 bucks,” he said. “… Why are we causing the taxpayers to spend money holding them in jail because they can’t come up with 100 bucks? And then along the same lines, you have the person who has 15 prior convictions, gets arrested on a felony charge, but because he can come up with 5,000 bucks, he gets out of jail just because he’s got money.
“That’s the whole purpose behind the change to have the right folks in and the right folks out.”
Legislation on hold
Senate Bill 228 in the 2017 General Assembly sought to establish the pretrial risk assessment program before Jan. 1, 2020. The bill passed the Senate but failed to get a vote in the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code.
Co-author Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said any new bail legislation was on hold until the numbers from the pilot counties were returned.
“There’s a couple things we know that we don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know how many people that were let out on bail or their own recognizance that probably couldn’t afford it but they were out, but they’ve committed some other violation when they were out on bail, and they were put back in. So, how many are in jail now that … can’t afford bail, they’re not a flight risk, they’re not a risk of harming somebody, but they just didn’t follow the rules and now they’re back in? I don’t know the answer to that, and no one has given it to us yet.”
An effort launched last month by The New Inquiry and Brooklyn, New York-based programmer Grayson Earle, Bail Bloc is a computer program that aims to help get people out of jail.
“When you download the app, a small part of your computer’s unused processing power is redirected toward mining a popular cryptocurrency called Monero, which is secure, private and untraceable,” according to the project. “At the end of every month, we exchange the Monero for U.S. dollars and donate the earnings to the Bronx Freedom Fund … to post bail for low-income people detained in New York effective immediately.”
Earle said the fact that cryptocurrencies (bitcoin the most popular) aren’t centralized necessitates such “mining” — which is funded by a small fee on every transaction in the system. “Miners” use their computer’s power to verify transactions on the cryptocurrency’s blockchain ledger.
As of Dec. 19 — 32 days since program began – 1,077 people were using Bail Bloc simultaneously. During that time, a total of $3,543 had been raised — enough to bail about four people out of jail.
“Bail funds are ‘revolving,’ which means they’re returned to their source when people appear for all their court dates — which, for clients of The Bronx Freedom Fund, happens 96 percent of the time,” according to the program. “Most Bail Bloc users can expect to generate around $3 to $5 per month. It might not seem like much, but because of the revolving funding model, it adds up quickly.”
Earle said the revolving bail model means the money raised through Bail Bloc has the potential to be used again and again, meaning that raising $1,000 could release 10 people from jail, he said.
“So, that element of it makes it even more viable as a fundraising option. Because $1,000 is not a totally significant amount of money, but if it can continue to do good while activating a conversation, I thik it’s pretty cool.”•