Providing a glimpse into what major criminal justice policy lawmakers could prioritize when the legislature assembles in February, the House chair of the Judiciary Committee pleaded with the Connecticut Sentencing Commission on Thursday to continue reexamining the state’s bail infrastructure.
During his remarks to the commission at its first in-person meeting since January 2020, Rep. Steven Stafstrom outlined what he feels are two overarching problems: The inability to detain people accused of committing violent crimes, and the ability to keep poor and low-income people locked up pretrial who aren’t dangerous but can’t afford to bail out.
The Bridgeport Democrat said the problem stems from an outdated constitutional provision, which holds that the state can deny bail only to people accused of committing capital offenses.
But capital offenses were repealed after the death penalty was abolished more than a decade ago, which left virtually no options for courts to hold people pretrial if an accused person has the financial means to post bail.
“We need to repeal the current constitutional provision that talks about the death penalty and that being the only way to hold somebody without bail,” Stafstrom told the commission. “We should be looking at, I believe, moving towards more of a risk-based system. What that looks like, I hope, comes from this room.”
Though no members of the commission followed up with questions, Judge Robin Pavia, the commission’s chair, told the representative that bail was a part of “issues that we certainly are continuing to look at.”
“We are so appreciative of all of the legislative input and hearing issues that you feel are important,” Pavia said. “It’s crucial for us, and where to focus and how to focus, and so your coming here today and saying that is very, very helpful.”
This year’s legislative session saw what many considered a major development in Connecticut bail reform. Lawmakers had proposed House Joint Resolution 261, an effort to amend the Constitution and allow the state to establish a risk-based pretrial system as opposed to a bail system based on a person’s financial means. The measure also sought to grant the legislature authority to set additional terms around pretrial release.
It was opposed by the bail industry, public defenders, prosecutors and advocates, some of whom believed the resolution marked a “radical departure” from the current system that would have a negative effect on people of color — who disproportionately account for more than 70% of incarcerated people in the state. Some officials also expressed frustration that changes were being considered without any input from stakeholders.
The resolution passed out of the Judiciary and Government Administration and Elections committees with some bipartisan support, but it never reached the House floor for a vote.
Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said during the session that he saw a need for more education around bail reform. Stafstrom agreed, later telling CT Mirror that he planned to make the resolution his top priority going into 2024.
But significant change could take several years, just as it did in states like New Jersey and Illinois — which have overhauled their bail infrastructures.
Constitutional amendments in Connecticut must pass through the House and Senate with three-fourths majority support in one legislative term, or a simple majority in two successive legislative terms. They then have to garner majority support among voters.
If enough state residents voted in support of the amendment, it would become part of the Constitution and give lawmakers the green light to debate and settle upon additional changes to bail. But it’s unclear how officials would change the system.
“There should be a more holistic look at it,” Stafstrom said at the Sentencing Commission meeting. “And I think that this group really should be the place that conversation originates from. And certainly, I’m here to work with you and partner with you as you hopefully dig in.”
Officials on Thursday also briefly discussed a different bail revision set to go into effect in 2024.
Currently people accused of a crime can post bail by paying a bail bonds agency — which loans them the money for a nonrefundable fee — the full amount or paying 10% of the amount if the total is $20,000 or less.
Starting Jan. 1, 2024, the latter choice — voted on by Superior Court judges earlier this year — will become known as the 7% cash bail option, providing one the possibility of paying 7% of their bail amount if the total is $50,000 or less.