The historic agreement includes common-sense reforms that protect people’s rights while keeping the community safe.
Special to the Vanguard
Detroit, MI – A Court has agreed to greatly curtail the use of cash bail so that it will only rarely result in someone’s detention. People will not be detained unless, after reviewing evidence presented, a judge determines that releasing a person would create an unmanageable flight risk or danger to the public.
The agreement was announced last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), the National ACLU, the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, the Legal Defense Fund, and The Bail Project with the leadership of the 36th District Court in Detroit to ensure that people are not jailed in violation of the Constitution because they cannot afford cash bail.
The agreement will remain in place two to five years and creates a unique partnership between civil rights advocates and the Court, which will provide regular reports on its progress.
“Thousands of people in Detroit will no longer be languishing behind bars simply because they are too poor to pay for their freedom,” said Phil Mayor, ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney. “The cash bail system has devastating consequences on communities, particularly communities of color.”
He added, “Today’s agreement will ensure people in Detroit will remain at home with their families, in their jobs, and in their communities where they belong while they wait for their day in court. Now we must take every action necessary — legislation hopefully, but litigation if necessary — to ensure that other Michiganders’ rights are similarly protected.”
In a video statement, Davontae Ross, plaintiff, said, “A week in jail cost me two years of my kids’ lives. Losing your kids like that is like having your heart ripped out of your chest. I never had to serve any jail time because of the ticket I got arrested for. Only because of bail.”
He added, “Someday, I hope to tell my kids about this case, and the role I played in it. I hope they will be proud of me, because what this agreement accomplishes is incredible. No one should ever have to sit in jail and have their world turned upside down just because they are too poor to buy their freedom. Hopefully, because of this, no one else will ever have to go through what I went through.”
Starmanie Jackson, plaintiff, called it, “a great victory that I’m extremely proud to be a part of. Now because of this change, this historical agreement, thousands of us will be spared the hardships of being locked up just because we are poor. We’ve succeeded in making the criminal legal system in Detroit more fair and just.”
They added, “The next step needed is to continue the much-needed changes announced today. For me, the issue of a person’s freedom is so important, I named my newborn daughter Liberty.”
The agreement resolves a federal lawsuit filed in April 2019 on behalf of seven Black Detroiters challenging Michigan’s two-tiered legal system in which a person’s freedom depended on their ability to afford bail. The lawsuit also claimed violations of the right to counsel because poor people accused of a crime were not provided with an attorney at arraignment hearings when their bail was set.
The reforms that will be implemented include:
everyone who is arraigned in the 36th District Court will be entitled to court-appointed counsel;
defendants who miss a hearing for the first time for most misdemeanor cases will automatically have their hearing rescheduled, instead of having a warrant issued for their arrest;
- the Court will release a defendant without cash bail on a personal recognizance bond, with minimal conditions, unless there is evidence that the person is a flight risk or danger to the public;
- if there is evidence that a defendant is a flight risk or danger, the Court will consider non-cash conditions, such as protective orders or reporting to probation;
- whenever cash bail is used, the court will examine the defendant’s ability to pay to determine an affordable amount, and in rare cases, bail can be set at an unaffordable amount only if the Court finds that pretrial detention is the only way to protect the public or prevent flight; and,
- the Court will presume that anyone at 200% of the federal poverty guidelines ($55,500 for a family of four) cannot afford to pay cash bail.
Further, there will be a Partnership Working Group that includes a 36th District Court Judge, the Court’s general counsel, and plaintiffs’ counsel. The group expects release rates for people released without cash bail, or with bail they can afford, within 24 hours of arraignment to be consistent with the rates achieved in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey, where the use of cash bail has largely been eliminated in recent years. The Court will report these rates bimonthly to the plaintiffs’ counsel.
“I am proud that 36th District Court, thanks in large part to the work of Judge Larry Williams, collaborated to create a more equitable justice system,” Judge William McConico, 36th District Court Chief Judge. “While other cities took a more hostile posture, we felt it was important to work together to find a solution. No longer will being poor result in disparate justice. This agreement preserves judicial discretion, while ensuring that judges are exercising that discretion lawfully and wisely.”
“As the top law enforcement official in Wayne County, I believe it’s important that our decisions are guided by discernment and compassion. I support limiting the use of cash bail for low level offenses because it incorporates both of those approaches,” said Wayne County Sheriff Raphael “Ray” Washington.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Criminal justice reforms like the groundbreaking agreement announced today are vital to ensuring equal justice and maintaining public safety. Cash bail causes the unwarranted incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people across the country, many from communities of color, before they have been found guilty of any crime.”
He added, “This practice is fundamentally inconsistent with the presumption that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and it does little either to ensure that defendants appear for trial or to protect the public.”