Other Voices

Locking up the innocent: We need bail reform

The entrance to public visitation room at Lon Evans Corrections Center, a 444-bed maximum security jail.
The entrance to public visitation room at Lon Evans Corrections Center, a 444-bed maximum security jail. Star-Telegram archives

Our criminal justice system is built on a basic principle of innocent until proven guilty. It works well and creates fairness. Yet our bail system is tied to money and, in many cases, is anything but fair.

While our jails are not meant to house innocent people, many county jails are doing just that. In our major cities approximately 70 percent of people being held in county jails are awaiting trial despite the fact that people are presumed innocent under our justice system.

One of the biggest issues is with our mental health population in jails. Instead of getting treatment, they are stored away in a box awaiting trial for crimes they may not have committed — crimes that may have been brought on by the mental issues not being appropriately identified or treated within the county jail system.

The external consequences of jail are harsh. Many lose their jobs, their health insurance, can’t make child support payments and are denied access to their families. Without a job, they can’t pay rent or make house payments, so they may end up homeless by the end of the process. A whole list of things that someone presumed innocent shouldn’t have happen to them.

Keeping violent criminals who are a danger to others behind bars is paramount. But for the rest of the population, especially those who are innocent, there must be a better system than the one we have now. The system of today works mainly on the critical factor of whether you have money for bail or not.

Money is great motivator for many things. It can motivate people to show up for court, and the lack of money can keep violent criminals behind bars until trial. It also can punish the poor unfairly and destroy lives of people who don’t deserve it.

There is a better way. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has developed one possible solution: a Public Safety Assessment Tool. It takes the money out of the equation and replaces it with data. A judge would use a set of unbiased risk factors for each case to determine whether it is safe to release a defendant to await trial at home instead of in a county jail.

That would mean the defendant could potentially keep his or her job and other commitments while awaiting trial; stay on schedule with medication and mental health treatment; and keep personal commitments with family.

It also would mean that those people who are dangerous would be kept where they belong, in jail, while they await trial regardless of how much is in their checking account.

Reforming the system in this way would take away much of the economic prejudice of the current system; save county taxpayers the cost of housing presumed innocent people; and make our justice system run more smoothly.

This kind of change won’t be easy to implement. The current process means big money to some powerful interests. It, however, is something we must consider when the Legislature returns next year.

We all would like to think that we have the fairest criminal justice system in the world, and in many respects we do, but we can always do better. This would be one giant step in making the system more fair.

Texas has long been a leader in criminal justice reform. It is time to take the lead again.

Cathy DeWitt is vice president for governmental affairs at the Texas Association of Business.