Lawmakers and advocates have long debated cash bail. Could this be the year the legislature acts on it?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jaden Edison to discuss his article, “Connecticut is considering major bail reform. But it won’t be easy.” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read his story here.

Episode Transcript

WSHU: Hello Jaden. Let’s first talk about Connecticut’s current bail system. How does it work? And why do advocates say it’s unfair? For instance, you give the example of Adam Lanza, the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting who’d probably have made bail if he’d lived to face trial. What’s the situation with bail in Connecticut?

JE: Yeah, so it all ties back to the Connecticut Constitution. And the Constitution very clearly outlines that one cannot be denied bail unless they committed a capital offense, which we know the death penalty was abolished in 2012. That also repealed capital offenses and changed it to what they now know as murder with special circumstances. So it was recognized at the time by the legislature that people who were charged with murder with special circumstances, it’s not a capital offense anymore, right.

WSHU: So the wording had changed.

JE: Exactly.

WSHU: And therefore, it did not correspond with what was in the Constitution.

JE: Exactly. Right on. And so that’s really what it is now. So now, I think, a problem that at least some lawmakers and advocates have and this is a very, in the weeds kind of issue. People have so many different views. I mean, I was all over the place reporting the story. But the bottom line is that you have at least what many see as a two-pronged problem, right?

One is that you have people who are accused of the most dangerous, heinous crimes you may think of who by virtue of the Constitution provision, you can’t deny them bail. But on the other end, you have people who many might not consider dangerous, who are sitting behind bars for years at a time just because they can’t afford to post bail. So it’s a very interesting scenario, where people, specifically lawmakers, are coming at this as if okay, we’re obviously not able to solve the issue at the high end of it. But also, on the lower end of the spectrum, there’s a problem too. We need to come to the table, have conversations and figure out where to go from here. And the only way they believe they can do that is to get at the constitutional provision that is currently outlined.

WSHU: So give us another example. I mean, you deal with Brandyn Grant-Ford, a Black man who faced a murder charge and had bail set at $500,000. He couldn’t afford it. So he spent four years in jail before a jury found him not guilty. So basically, he ended up spending four years wrongly incarcerated.

JE: Yeah, four years that he won’t get back. That was something that was alluded to right about the previous justice reporter Kelan Lyons, he did a big series on bail. And that was one of the things he alluded to. And so when you go and look at that story, it is fascinating. And this shows you the lower end of the spectrum. When I say lower, and I’m talking about from an income standpoint, people who can’t afford the means to bail out. You see how complicated the situation is, right?

So in the instances where you do keep someone languishing behind bars for years at a time and then the situation like like Grant-Ford, who is found not guilty by a jury, that’s four years of his life, and I’m sure other people’s lives in different circumstances that you don’t get back. Four years where you were under the criminal justice system. And again, remember, when you get involved, and you get wrapped up into the criminal justice system, it’s very hard to get untangled from that. Even in a situation where you’re found innocent. Every time you Google his name, he is tied to whatever story, whatever crime accusations there were. And so I just think that that just speaks more to the complexities of the current situation and where we are right now.

WSHU: So talking about where we are right now, House Joint Resolution 261 is which was passed by the Judiciary Committee. It’s now pending in the General Administration Elections Committee. What would it change?

JE: So it’s two prongs. And I think it’s important to look at it in two different kinds of categories. So at the foundation, what this does is it allows the state to create a risk-based bail system essentially. So what that means is that a judge would then have the authority to assess whether or not someone is denied bail, and essentially change the language in the Constitution, opening the door for that to happen. And so it’s not so much based on whether someone has the means to bond out, which is what the current system is. But it moves to a system again, where it goes back into more of a risk-based assessment based on the accusation, the crime that you were being accused of.

The second part of it, though, is it gives the legislature authority to set additional terms around pretrial release. And so that’s particularly notable because what that does is it opens the door for so many various possibilities as to what a bail system in Connecticut could look like. If you look at a place like New Jersey, which in the last 10 years has done so much work around bail reform, they have similar steps where they changed the Constitution. And after years of debate and bipartisan support, they were able to put severe limits on the use of money bail through their system. We’re not saying that Connecticut’s doing that. That’s what they’re trying to do. But there are similarities, and you can look at other systems and things. It opens the door for many conversations to be had over a several year period, which, as was pointed out in the story, is kind of linked to this conversation. This is a conversation that’s been happening in many jurisdictions around the country.

WSHU: And prosecutors in Connecticut are very skeptical of this. They say it’s a radical departure, and they’re comfortable with the current system the way it is. Is that what they’re saying?

JE: Yes, it is. When I go back and look at that, it seems to come down to public defenders and prosecutors feeling as if before we ever got to a point of proposing this resolution, there should have been thorough discussion about what it would entail, what this might look like and what the unintended consequences may be. And so from their perspective, that just hasn’t happened enough.

Folks like Tashaun Bowden-Lewis, who’s Connecticut’s chief public defender, she’s like, okay, even if the intentions are great, and this could end up being a positive thing, we just don’t know, because we haven’t sat down and we haven’t even had the conversation yet to figure out exactly what we want to do where we want to go. When you look at Representative Steven Stafstrom (D-Bridgeport), who is co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, he speaks to this. And this is in part true, that by virtue of any kind of constitutional amendment, that conversation has to be had over the course of a multi-year period. So what he feels he’s doing and what the legislature feels they’re doing is they are opening the door for the conversation to be had down the line.

Anytime you talk about a constitutional amendment, it takes years. We saw this with early voting, this was a very big thing that happened in the state that took years and years of debate and conversation and we still don’t even have the framework, they’re still negotiating that in the current legislature. And so that’s what lawmakers are trying to do is essentially open the door for those conversations to be had. But I just think there are people who want the state to kind of slow down, pull back and let’s really sit down and really think about this first, before we move forward and even get to talking about any kind of amendments to the Constitution.

WSHU: The big target in the room is the $2 billion a year that the bail bonds industry makes in the current system.

JE: Yeah, you know that that’s another part of it, too, if you talk about the bail bonds industry. I mean, when we had public hearings for the House joint resolution, there were national bail executives who showed up and testified against this and got into kind of a sparring match with some of the lawmakers. That was interesting to watch and see. But I think this is, you know, their bread and butter when it comes to profit.

One gentleman we spoke with in this story, he talks about how everybody profits off the criminal legal system, the criminal justice system. Everybody, the prosecutors and the public defenders, those people have set salaries and things like that. And the bail bondsman you know, the process is very complicated. But nonetheless, they are severely opposed to any kind of amendment because again, that would severely undermine their operation and what they’re trying to do, but also they feel that they’re providing a valuable service to low income people, people without the means. They feel this is an adequate and sufficient option for people. And eliminating that could have dire consequences. At least that’s what their belief is. And that’s what was communicated to me.

But you have to mention, though, the fact that this $2 billion industry across the country has faced sharp criticism for many of his practices. There was a big New York Times piece that went into great detail about this and talked about how those practices inherently keep the poorest people in prison versus the people who pose the highest risk to society.

WSHU: Well, thank you so much Jaden. It seems as if this is just the beginning of the conversation.

JE: It is. And you know, this is a multi-year process. This resolution may not make it out of the full House, the full legislature, this legislative session. But the way Connecticut works, the way we’ve seen with other issues is that the issue is going to continue to resurface. If it’s not this year, it’ll be next year, or the year after that.

So it’s definitely something for people to watch out for. Because I think, again, people have vastly different opinions about where the system needs to be. At the same time. I think many people do also recognize that there is an inherent issue when it comes to who’s being incarcerated pretrial. And whether or not those things need to change, I guess remains to be seen, but I’ll be watching. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with it.

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Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.