House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, declined Thursday to call Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s bail reform legislation for a vote, effectively killing of the measure for 2016.
Sharkey told reporters after a House Democratic caucus that legislators support the governor’s goal of ensuring that no one is jailed only for an inability to afford bail, but they had too many questions about his approach.
“I think there’s a general consensus there’s not a comfort level within our caucus to run a bill today. There’s certainly, I think, unanimous support for the concept and the principle of what the governor is trying to achieve with this bill.”
Malloy wanted to eliminate bail for many misdemeanors, saying it would free hundreds of inmates now being held pretrial on low bail.
But House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, complained that a “one-size-fits-all” approach based on an underlying charge was misguided, saying a risk assessment of individuals was a better approach. Her caucus obtained statistics from the Judicial Department that she says shows a majority of defendants being held pretrial had risk factors, such as lengthy criminal records.
“How come nobody has discussed their prior convictions before we released them yesterday?” Klarides said Thursday. “How come none of that conversation was had?”
Malloy did not retreat from his proposal in a press conference in his office, saying he still believes too many defendants are being held for reasons of income, not as a flight risk or a danger to public safety. He emphasized that the defendants are being held before trial.
“I don’t want to question what kind of Americans they are, but I grew up in an America where you’re not presumed guilty, that there actually is a presumption where you are assumed to be not guilty of something you are charged with until such time as a trial takes place,” Malloy said.
Malloy’s comment that many defendants in misdemeanor cases are being held on bail they cannot afford implied a lack of diligence by at least some judges and bail commissioners in setting bail.
“I think some of them are doing a very good job and some of them are not doing as good a job, and I think sometimes mistakes get made,” Malloy said.
He said he believe that data still shows that people of means, even those with criminal records, are free awaiting trial because they can afford bail, while others are in jail because they cannot.
“It is in essence a system that in this day and age keeps people in jail because they are poor. That’s s what it does,” Malloy said.
The executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which generally supports the Malloy administration’s willingness to take on criminal justice reforms, said in an interview with CT Mirror that she was aware of no other state that had banned bail based on charges. Malloy said he was unaware if that was true.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen said the best-practices approach to bail and pretrial detention, a national subject of intense research and debate since a U.S. Department of Justice symposium in 2011, is assessment of an individual’s risk of flight or violence, not the elimination of bond based on the criminal charge on which a defendant is being held.
The administration had tried to blunt such criticism by noting that judges still would have discretion to impose bail, based on a review of a defendant’s history.
Sharkey, who has clashed with the governor, cast the decision as a setback, not a final defeat for Malloy. He suggested the legislature and administration convene community hearings to develop a new bail bill, most likely for the General Assembly to consider in 2017.
“There was a general sense there perhaps could be more input from the public, from the other side of the aisle and others towards developing a bill that would have the kind of unanimous support and bipartisan support that would actually get this done,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey initially said it was up the administration to make the next move, technically leaving open the possibility of action this year. But in response to questions, Sharkey conceded there is no appetite to return this summer to take up a criminal justice bill.
“It’s not the kind of thing that can be done in a couple of weeks,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, issued a statement that acknowledged that reform was developing as a wedge issue in the fall campaign for control of the General Assembly, where Democrats have an 87-64 majority in the House and 21-15 margin in the Senate.
“Reforming our bail system is too important an issue to be subject to partisan gamesmanship,” Looney said. “A bipartisan approach is necessary to ensure that this reform receives the support it deserves. Today, I urge Gov. Malloy to convene bipartisan talks to address the concerns shared by Democrats and Republicans. I believe that there is support for this initiative in both parties and minor changes will produce a bill that satisfies both Democrats and Republicans and end an unfair system that disproportionately impacts Connecticut’s poor and minority residents.”
Malloy embraced criminal justice reform after his re-election to a second term in 2014. Last year he won passage of what he called his Second Chance initiatives, which included a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.
He proposed more ambitious changes this year: Bail reform and raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 21 for most crimes other than serious felonies. In the face of legislative opposition, Malloy set aside the raise-the-age provision to focus on bail.