Tonight, thousands of Iowans will spend the night in a jail awaiting trial. Some will be there because they pose a flight-risk or a danger to the community. Others will be there simply because they cannot afford to post bail.
A person’s bank account is often a determining factor in our state’s two-tiered bail system. That needs to change. A better way would be a system that, one, ensures we keep those who pose a danger to the community behind bars and, two, won’t let those who pose no risk suffer sometimes irreparable harm simply because they can’t afford bail.
Fortunately, the Hawkeye State recently took an important step to correct this injustice through the creation of the Public Safety Assessment, a pretrial pilot program operating in Polk, Woodbury, Scott, and Linn counties. Instead of simply demanding that defendants pay a given sum while awaiting trial, the program utilizes state-of-the-art technology to provide judges with bail recommendations using a variety of factors, including whether a defendant poses a flight risk or a danger to the public.
The pilot program has been operating since the beginning of the year and a report is due next year measuring its effectiveness. This is the kind of common-sense approach that is all too lacking in state government.
Yet we would never have the benefit of that report if Gov. Kim Reynolds had not vetoed sections of House bill 2492 that would have immediately cut off funding for the pilot program.
Rep. Gary Worthon (R-Storm Lake), inserted the language in the appropriations bill during negotiations, claiming “there’s a lot of question marks in this whole thing.” He’s right, so why end the pilot program before we have an opportunity to find out if it is working?
Being behind bars while awaiting trial is more than a mere inconvenience for the defendant. An absence of just days can be the difference for a defendant keeping a job and staying out of even more trouble. Research by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation found low-risk offenders are nearly 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before trial after only a few days in jail than defendants held for 24 hours or less.
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And then there are heartbreaking stories like that of Adriana, a 24-year old at the time, who was arrested for child endangerment in 2014. Living at a shelter in New York City, Adriana had stepped away momentarily to buy diapers for her infant. A staff member called the authorities on her and Adriana was forced to spend two weeks in jail because she could not afford to post bail. While in jail, Adriana lost her place at the local shelter.
That’s appalling and is part of the reason why there is growing momentum across the country to rethink the way we have been setting bail for defendants awaiting trial.
Besides the humanitarian and common-sense approach to reforming our bail system, there is also evidence that it could save taxpayer dollars. The Buckeye Institute, an Ohio think tank, recently found that taxpayers in the state could expect to save as much as $67 million a year if the Ohio legislature moves forward on a plan to reform its bail system.
Of course, these pretrial risk assessments have not been free from controversy. Here in Iowa, some contend the pilot program will make it harder for judges to exercise discretion when weighing the merits of a case, but as Fifth Judicial District Chief Judge Art Gamble recently said: “We don’t just rubber-stamp the PSA [Public Service Assessment] and defer to that as if we’re deferring to a machine. … The assessment tool is considered in addition to information judges have always used in making a bond decision.”
More information and greater context. What’s to fear?
Fortunately, thanks to Gov. Reynolds’ decision to save the pilot program, Iowans won’t be deprived of an opportunity to see if this new approach to setting bail makes sense.
• Drew Klein is Iowa state director at Americans for Prosperity.