A bigger problem than just bail reform

Published 3:42 pm Monday, February 11, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

As Kentucky’s legislature discusses the possibility of bail reform this year, it’s clear there are people with legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue. It’s also clear that the state and the entire nation face a much bigger problem.

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Our criminal justice system is not built to solve the problems we are asking it to solve today.

The system ought to be focused on dealing with actual criminals — those who actively undermine a safe and fair society with violence, theft and deception. Instead, the vast majority of its time is now spent dealing with impoverished drug addicts.

Reformers want the use of cash bail severely restricted because, they argue, its blanket use is discriminatory against poor people. When someone can’t get out of jail, they can’t keep their job or look for a new one; they can’t care for family members. Without a job, they can lose their home. They can actually wind up more likely to commit crime later, when they are eventually released.

Reformers want judges to use their discretion to detain truly dangerous people and give other pretrial defendants a way out of jail that might require them to be on good behavior, but doesn’t require them to pay. Fair enough.

But as judges and others testified before the Kentucky House Judiciary Committee last week, many judges already consider individual situations when setting bonds. They help those with jobs get out on bonds they can afford. They try to be flexible with allowing defendants to go to drug treatment programs. And they sometimes actually use cash bonds to detain defendants who are high on drugs until they can sober up and make better choices.

The duty many Kentucky judges feel to best serve their community and help defendants with tough love is admirable. But it also shouldn’t have to be their job to treat sick people.

Judges and jails should not be the ones helping someone with an opioid addiction try for a third time to get clean. They should not be the ones sobering up a meth user. But they are, because we as a society have failed to respond appropriately to the drug epidemic.

We have allowed all the problems to fall on the criminal justice system’s shoulders and demanded that police and the courts solve the drug problem for us.

We’ve asked police to sniff out and arrest drug users, instead of creating community treatment solutions.

We’ve called on the courts to be “tough” on drug criminals, instead of using compassion to help those at-risk before they commit a crime.

We’ve demanded that drug users be kept off our streets, out of our neighborhoods and out of employment, instead of helping them reintegrate and transform their lives.

We’ve required our police and courts to become teachers, nurses, social workers and mentors all rolled into one, instead of accepting those roles ourselves.

The criminal justice system has taken on these roles admirably in many cases, but that doesn’t change the fact we’re trying to hit a nail with a screwdriver.

It’s possible bail reform could help lighten the load on our prisons and give more people a chance to break out of a vicious cycle and rebuild their lives. Bail reform could be a significant improvement in helping the criminal justice system better deal with the kinds of defendants it deals with today — especially if it can be accomplished in a way that addresses concerns from all sides.

But it’s also only a stepping stone, a treatment for a symptom. To treat the disease, we’ll have to think much bigger.