Poverty should not be the cause of imprisonment in Connecticut

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In 2014, at York Correctional Institution, Amy Rolon fell from her wheelchair. Nearby, correction officers watched her fall. Rolon, who was suffering from heroin withdrawal, writhed on the ground after hitting her head. She tried to climb back into the wheelchair and fell again. For 20 minutes, scores of staff members at York witnessed Rolon struggle.

Nobody helped.

Recently, Rolon filed a $7.5 million lawsuit medical-neglect claim against the Department of Correction. At the time of her admittance, a court order instructed York’s staff to provide Rolon both medical attention and detoxification support. She received neither. During her two days in custody, the mother-of-five vomited, seized, bled from the mouth, and suffered head trauma that would leave her cognitively impaired and unable to walk.

Many are understandably outraged at the Dickensian state of health care attention at York Correctional. Little attention, though, has been paid to the reason why Rolon was incarcerated at York without being convicted of any crime.

She couldn’t afford her bail.

Rolon was charged with misdemeanors for sixth-degree larceny and failure to appear in court. A judge set her bail amount at $3,500. To secure release, Rolon needed to pay a commercial bail bondsmen approximately 10 percent of that: $350. Because she couldn’t come up with the funds, the state dispatched Rolon to pretrial detention at York.

For a lack of a few hundred dollars, Rolon nearly lost her life.

Unfortunately, Rolon’s situation is all too common in Connecticut, where hundreds of people are held in pretrial detention for days, weeks, and months because they cannot afford to pay bail.  Last year, 10,000 people in Connecticut spent at least a day in pretrial detention because they couldn’t afford their bond amounts, according to Michael Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. This form of wealth-based jailing brings a multitude of harms to poor defendants. They face limited access to legal counsel in jail, making it difficult to prepare a strong defense. They face incentives to plead guilty––even absent evidence of wrongdoing––merely to secure freedom from jail. They lose their jobs, custody of their children, and break ties with their communities.

These low-risk defendants––too poor to post bail, languishing in repellent conditions––have not been convicted of any charges.

Fortunately, right now, state legislators have the opportunity to lessen the burdens of pretrial detention. The Second Chance Society Bill, a comprehensive attempt at criminal justice reform, includes a provision to eliminate the requirement of cash bail for nearly all misdemeanor charges. Instead of having to pay a ten percent fee to a bail bondsman or post the full amount to the court, a defendant like Rolon would be released on her own recognizance into the community, where she could prepare her legal defense, return to her family, retain or seek employment, and access health services.

Opponents of the elimination of cash bail––mainly agents in the commercial bail industry–– say that low-level offenders pose a threat to community safety if released without bond. But empirical studies have shown the opposite.

According to a 2013 study by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, compared to low-risk defendants held for less than a day, “those held for 8-14 days were 56 percent more likely to be rearrested before trial and 51 percent more likely to recidivate after sentence completion.” In other words, extended pretrial incarceration actually makes a defendant more likely to break the law, both pre- and post-sentencing.

In theory, bail balances the presumption of innocence with a need for defendants to appear in court. Bail should incentivize defendants to appear court while simultaneously permitting their release into their community. In practice, however, this isn’t the case. Bail causes poor defendants to remain in pretrial detention with no viable option for release, effectively creating a presumption of guilt.

A defendant who cannot afford bail might plead guilty merely to get out of jail. Or, if she waits for her trial, she risks losing her job, access to public housing, and custody of her children. Even if the trial eventually results in a verdict of innocence, she is punished with the destabilizing effects of pretrial detention, often more punitive and long-standing than a prison sentence.

If Connecticut eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors, what will compel defendants to appear in court? Consider a finding from the Bronx Freedom Fund, a charitable bail organization in New York City. Since October 2013, 97 percent of the defendants for whom the Bronx Freedom Fund has posted bail have appeared for all scheduled court dates, suggesting that even without personal money on the line, defendants want to fight their cases.

Rolon wanted to fight her case in court. Instead, she is now fighting for her life, the state having dropped its charges against her. Forty-eight hours after entering York Correctional, Rolon was admitted to an emergency room and then underwent brain surgery. The state eventually dismissed the charges against Rolon. Her pretrial incarceration ultimately left her partially paralyzed. Connecticut can prevent others from this fate by passing The Second Chance Society Bill.

Simone Seiver is co-founder of The Connecticut Bail Fund, a nonprofit organization promoting racial and economic justice within the pretrial process of the criminal justice system. She is currently a senior at Yale University.

 

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