By Phoebe Glick
CHITTENDEN COUNTY, VERMONT — Cash bail has been eliminated in Chittenden County, Vermont, following nearly a year of deliberation on the practice by State Attorney Sarah F. George’s office.
In a press release sent out late Wednesday, George acknowledged the racist and classist roots of the American legal system, a system which upholds and enforces the status quo. Many policies such as bail heavily impact poor communities and people of color, producing “disparate outcomes” and perpetuate the “oppression and caging of Black, Brown, and poor people.”
Vermont’s system is no exception: it has “one of the most disproportionate prison populations in the nation when compared with [its] racial makeup.” Vermont’s incarcerated population is nine percent, Black, five percent Latino, and two percent Native American, while its general population is only two percent Black, one percent Latino, and zero percent Native American.
George also notes data showing that Vermont’s legal institutions “over-police, over-prosecute, and over-incarcerate people of color.”
Bail is one such system upholding inequity in Vermont, they said. The payment constituting bail is purportedly to ensure that defendants appear for their court dates, and Vermont law puts bail in place specifically to address flight risks. However, George reports that research consistently disproves that bail accomplishes this goal.
Many defendants in Chittenden County remain in jail waiting for their cases to be heard simply because they cannot pay their bail. This is, in effect, ensuring that the presumption of innocence is afforded only to well-off defendants. George notes that “our Constitution mandates that ‘no person shall be imprisoned for debt.’”
Besides infringing on poor communities’ rights and liberties, this constitutes a drain on public resources. According to George’s press report, US taxpayers spend $38 million daily to jail defendants waiting for trial.
Defendants who cannot afford to pay bail and are held in jail feel harsh and direct consequences. These victims of the cash bail system face losing their jobs, not seeing family or children, and housing instability while incarcerated. Access to services that could help defendants navigate the legal system or any issues caused by incarceration are unavailable to individuals while they’re in jail.
Because of these dire circumstances, many defendants feel enormous pressure to take plea deals simply to return home, said George, arguing this flawed system creates harm and sets people up for recidivism, saying that the impacts of bail “make our community less safe and only serves to hold poor people in jail.”
Beginning in January, George’s office discussed its bail policy, considering research on bail, the above considerations, impacts of bail, personal experiences, and the State’s Attorney’s Mission Statement and Bill of Values.
Ultimately, the office decided to eliminate the practice of bail, a practice “putting a price tag on freedom and criminalizing poverty.”
In current ongoing cases where bail is involved, the State’s Attorney’s office will work to strike bail and return defendants to their homes and communities.
Going forward, Chittenden County will base detention decisions of concern for the public safety. The office will recommend detention only in cases where the defendant is accused of a violent felony with significant evidence, and where the Attorney’s office believes there is “a serious public safety threat that cannot be immediately negated.”
George urges the legislature to make this policy law so that it cannot be superseded by any objections made by the state of Vermont. This would allow for statewide release of individuals trapped in the bail system, and “finally and safely cancel our contract with out of state for-profit prisons.”
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