28 July 2016

Misdemeanor Defendants Unable To Post Bond Pay Dearly For Their Poverty

In misdemeanor cases, pretrial detention poses a particular problem because it may induce otherwise innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to exit jail, potentially creating widespread error in case adjudication. . . . This Article uses detailed data on hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor cases resolved in Harris County, Texas — the third largest county in the U.S. — to measure the effects of pretrial detention on case outcomes and future crime. 
We find that detained defendants are 25% more likely than similarly situated releases to plead guilty, 43% more likely to be sentenced to jail, and receive jail sentences that are more than twice as long on average.
From here.

Controls in the study establish that these effects are probably caused by pre-trial detention rather than simply correlated with it.

This is particularly troubling in misdemeanor cases, because the de facto punishment arising from pre-trial detention in misdemeanor cases is often great relative to the likely sentence upon conviction, and because the likely harm from pre-trial release of misdemeanor defendants is generally much smaller than the likely harm from pre-trial release of felony defendants.

Another troubling fact is that the bond amounts, while insurmountable to those too poor to raise those funds, are quite modest for middle class defendants in most misdemeanor cases.  Yet, misdemeanor bonds are rarely imposed, in practice, on a sliding scale.  This also means that bond forfeiture may be a poor deterrent to flight for those inclined to do so in these cases, and that the economic gain to the detaining court from bond forfeitures is often modest.

Finally, studies have definitively and repeatedly shown that alternatives to bail are equally or more effective at causing defendants to show up for hearings if they are not detained prior to trial despite allowing far more people to be released prior to trial.

This casts the whole system of bail as more of an unfair litigation tactic used by prosecutors and less as a legitimate protection for the public.

More discussion of these issues if found in this post from 13 months ago, and also in this 11 month old post.

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