End Cash Bail

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

As members of the County’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, we are excited to see results and new jail diversion efforts underway in Bellingham’s Electronic Home Monitoring program and Whatcom County’s upcoming GRACE program. We also find that continued detailed examination of our criminal justice system is revealing other sensible, cost-saving opportunities to create more equitable outcomes for the people it affects most directly—particularly through bail justice reform. People who are poor and/or disabled continue to be incarcerated in part due to their poverty.

A recent situation was retold by the county’s public defender that illustrates the opportunity we have to make progress toward greater equity and lower rates of incarceration. She had two defendants in court one morning. One was a Class-B felon drug dealer facing a year in prison and another was one of his addicted customers facing a possession charge.

She asked, “Guess which one could afford to post bail and who couldn’t?”

We think there is a better way to make decisions about who we incarcerate and why we incarcerate them.
More than 60 percent of Whatcom County’s jail population is being held on pretrial status. Our cash bail system clearly doesn’t work for many people in poverty, and in cases like the felony drug dealer, it has the potential to both increase crime and reduce public safety for the broader community.

The recent report from the Vera Institute confirms that cash bail doesn’t make the community safer—people with higher bail amounts get out at about the same rate as those with lower bail. And those with lower bails are incarcerated disproportionately for failing to appear for court dates for non-violent crimes.

We can change this.

A clear path forward to a pretrial risk-assessment tool is being weighed by the Legal and Justice Committee of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. This tool—much like Bellingham’s Electronic Home Monitoring program—would rely on a score to determine whether a person is safe enough to release, not their ability to post bail.

The tool could be designed to evaluate multiple factors including the type (if any) of a person’s criminal history, previous failures to appear in court, and housing and employment stability. Certain factors are nonstarters: violent criminal history, sexual assault and other dangerous behaviors keep people incarcerated up to their trial.

But the right tool has to be adopted or created for higher courts. And monitoring and enforcement resources must be included for courts beyond Bellingham Municipal Court to ensure public safety.

For that local court, a third-party nonprofit—Friendship Diversion Services—provides monitoring services for electronic home monitoring. For pretrial in other courts, similar resources will be needed to be effective.

These risk-assessment tools aren’t new.

The state of New Jersey passed laws in 2014 that eliminated cash bail outright.  Hawaii, Nevada, Vermont, and West Virginia have all passed laws transforming the bail system into a risk-assessment system. In New Mexico, voters approved similar reforms by 87 percent.

Using a validated, evidence-based risk-assessment tool can help keep our Whatcom County communities safer.

We are encouraged that the Task Force process is generating positive recommendations to make our criminal justice system more equitable and effective. Bellingham’s jail diversion reforms are a step in the right direction. And we have more opportunities at both the city and county levels to prevent incarceration, increase safety and save taxpayer dollars.

Dan Hammill is the Ward 3 representative of Bellingham City Council; Greg Winter is Executive Director of Opportunity Council; both are members of the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce.

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