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Categorized | Featured, Hartford, Nation

No Bail, No Justice: How Politics and Poverty Trap People in Prisons

By Christian Spencer, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — For Wayne Francis, the wait to get out of prison was a bit much.

Francis, a Hartford-based attorney, was charged with first-degree larceny in 2017 and had to wait more than two years before he could cobble up about $200, 000 of his $2 million bail bond to get out of maximum security prison. Some observers felt his pre-trial detention bond and delay in prison was excessive and racist when compared to other individuals in similar situations.

Francis, now freed by his friend Barbara Frankson, was placed in a level five correctional facility, the highest and most stringent form of prison security. Francis spent 27 months in a prison surrounded by some of the most violent offenders in the state. 

“Level five is when you have lifers, murders, and Wayne was put in there with them,” Frankson said. “Innocent until proven guilty, is that what they say? He was guilty before proven innocent.”


According to Frankson, Wayne was assigned an ankle-monitor for 30 days and offered curfew after he was bailed out.

“But guess what, he still has an ankle bracelet and he didn’t get curfew. He is still [technically] in jail because he can’t get a curfew. It took him forever to get to his doctor’s appointment.”

Every year, more than 11 million people move through America’s 3,100 local jails and prisons, many on low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, costing local governments about $22 billion a year, according to a 2016 White House initiative. In local jails and prisons in Connecticut, about 550 people were in pre-trial detention.

Some of these pre-trial detentions are because of the politics of race or dire poverty. In both cases, the detainee has to stay in prison until he can afford bail.

To break the cycle of incarceration and wealth-based jailing, President Barack Obama’s administration launched the Data-Driven Justice Initiative with a bipartisan coalition of 67 city, county, and state governments, who have committed to using data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system and change approaches to pre-trial incarceration, so that low-risk offenders no longer stay in jail simply because they cannot afford a bond.

These innovative strategies, which have measurably reduced jail populations in several communities, help stabilize individuals and families, better serve communities, and often save money in the process, White House officials said.

Second Chance Society

Connecticut joined in on the DDJ initiative. Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration launched its Second Chance Society initiative, signed into law in 2016, to decrease both incarceration and crime rates; a second set of proposals targeted bail and pretrial detention. But it did not pass into law. It’s unclear whether Gov. Ned Lammont will continue with this initiative.

Often, what greets a person entering the criminal justice system is a bail amount they cannot hope to pay. Francis’s bail was excessive and way above the $5,000 that the bill covers but is necessary to consider, observers said.

While prison rates have stalled and begun to decrease slightly for people convicted of and sentenced for crimes, a high—and increasing — number of people are detained in jails without conviction, according to Camille Seaberry of DataHaven. Many of these people have cycled repeatedly in and out of jail and prisons. Some are being charged only with nonviolent misdemeanors. African-Americans and Latinos are held in pretrial detention at much higher rates than white people.

In New Haven, African Americans make up 33 percent of the population but 56 percent of custodial arrests—and similar disparities exist in Bridgeport and Hartford.

Courtesy of shutterstock.com

There is even evidence that the length of time spent in detention before trial may predict whether a person is sentenced to prison and for how long. There is also a growing movement toward more data-driven practices within criminal justice systems, such as risk assessments, though this is not without its concerns of bias, according to Seaberry.

While the Second Chance 2.0 bill failed to pass in 2016, Connecticut has built momentum toward some degree of bail reform. One promising new example, the Connecticut Bail Fund.

As a result of move, Connecticut could be the next state to reform the issue of bail bonds, a problem that continues to disadvantage thousands, who cannot afford bail sentences.

For low-income defendants with minimal bonds, a judicial committee of Superior Court judges is considering the prospect of releasing defendants while their criminal court cases are ongoing.

The proposal would require defendants to have 10 percent of the cash needed for court or a police department under a surety bond of $20,000 or less.

What is supposed to be a collateral exchange, intended to reduce the likelihood that the presumed to be innocent accused do not commit more crimes or skip their pretrial, is now the reason most inmates in jail have not been convicted.

Even if people were to be convicted of their alleged crimes, our due process system states that these individuals that cannot be punished in advance; this then raises the question: why is there a monetary policy that determines one’s freedom?

Oddly enough, holding a presumably innocent person in a jail cell does more harm than good in ensuring that the person does go to trial.

Possible Solutions

According to Dr. Christopher Lowenkamp’s research, The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention, that short-term pretrial detention for low- and medium-risk defendants may be ineffective or even counterproductive as a way to secure court appearance and prevent re-arrest.

Although the move has been embraced by the state’s Sentencing Commission, Chief Public Defender, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, many bond agencies have rallied against the potential plan, saying it would cause havoc to the legal justice system, including affecting the employment of bondsman.

“It would affect us in a bad way. It definitely puts a dent in our income. It will affect us from paying our employees,” Edward Angelillo, co-owner of Afford-A-Bail Bail Bonds, said. “New Jersey is failing. Ever since [the state has reformed it bond policies], it’s been failing. The cops don’t look for these people. How many people are wanted and were let go for free?

Bondsman like Afford-A-Bail Bail Bonds do more than offer payment plans, they force their clients, who might otherwise miss or skip due dates, into court.

“Legislators were unclear on what extent of bond enforcement. We apprehend hundreds each year, and if [our company] didn’t pick these people up, the police department are not capable of picking those people,” Brian, a colleague of Angelillo, who wish to leave his last name anonymous, said.

“Some of these people don’t comply. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that’s a high risk,” Brian said.

Contrary to what Afford-A-Bail Bond said, crime in New Jersey has plunged in the past two years since the elimination of cash bail bonds, according to WNYC.

There were similar concerns about New Jersey’s initial Criminal Justice Reform Act that mostly did away with cash bail. On October 2019, California was the latest state to outlaw cash bail bonds with a referendum called Senate Bill 10 (SB-10), or California Money Bail Reform Act. The SB-10 initiative’s biggest critics are bondsmen who decry that this bill will nullify their industry, allowing suspects to leave jail before trial in between 24 and 36 hours.

However, after a steady decline in crime such as homicide and robbery by thirty percent, advocates like Brett Davidson, the Co-Director of Connecticut Bail Fund, are pushing to end cash bail bonds because they unfairly target minorities.

“The community members who suffer most as a result of the money bail system are poor people, people of color -particularly Black people, immigrants, queer and trans people, people with disabilities and chronic illness, and people with histories of violence and trauma,” Davidson said.

“The harms of pretrial detention are too many to name: eviction/ loss of housing, arrest by ICE and deportation, impoverishment, loss of healthcare, coerced plea bargains, the list goes on. A major reason why so many of our community members are being held on bail is that judges and prosecutors leverage wealth-based pretrial detention to coerce people who can’t afford bail into accepting guilty plea bargains,” Davidson said.

The result of being in a pretrial detention can cause job loss, financial hardship and the loss of child custody. The state of being in a pretrial detention can cause presumably innocent person to plead guilty and increases the risk of conviction.

According to the research in “The Heavy Costs of High Bail: Evidence from Judge Randomization,” it was discovered that defendants who are detained pending trial are much more likely to receive a custodial sentence, and to be incarcerated for a longer period, than similarly situated defendants who await the disposition of the cases in the community.

Local advocates, many of whom are broadly associated with progressive movements established around the 2016 election, have voiced their concerns about pretrial detention.

“There is no arguing whether or not person’s wealth determines their incarceration. It’s a simple fact: if you can pay, you go free; if you can’t pay, you stay in jail — and, as a result, you are at risk of losing everything,” Davidson said.

“We absolutely need to abolish this system of wealth-based jailing, but we also need to be careful not to replace it with an equally violent, racist system of mass pretrial incarceration (for example, mass preventive detention as determined by pseudo-scientific risk assessment algorithms claiming to predict likelihood of future crimes.) We want to see the abolition of money bail within a transformative program of mass liberation, community re-investment, and reparations.”

On Nov. 5, 2015, Governor Dannel P. Malloy asked the Connecticut Sentencing Commission to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Connecticut’s pretrial justice system and investigate potentially reforming it.

The governor requested that the Commission prioritize non-violent, low-level pretrial detainees. These individuals are most likely detained because they do not have the financial resources to post bond.

Compared to New Jersey that already conducted this experiment, New Jersey pretrial jail population is in decline as of 2019, and defendants are still showing up for court appearances at about the same rate, according to NewJersey.com.

Malloy wanted the Commission to provide “an analysis of potential ways Connecticut can focus pretrial incarceration efforts on individuals who are dangerous and/or a flight risk,” according to resolution from 2015-2016.

The Director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission Alex Tsarkov, who practices law in the Hartford area, states that, although he believes the bail bond system is one that relies on wealth, most of Connecticut’s legal proceedings are some of the best nationwide.

“We have a pretrial justice agency, there’s treatment available, validated risk assessment, uniformed state court system, and we have a culture of release, meaning we relatively release more [inmates] compared to the average state,” Tsarkov said.

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