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Program on bail reform discussed by local organization

By CHARLOTTA NORBY

Women’s Network of Boyle County

The Women’s Network of Boyle County sponsored a program on bail reform with Dr. Ashley Spalding, research director at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy on Aug. 11. Her presentation covered bail law in Kentucky and pretrial detention in Boyle County. 

When a person is arrested, a judge decides whether to release that person on a non-financial bond or to require money bail for release, according to Spalding. If Kentucky law, which includes a pretrial risk assessment tool, was followed strictly, Spalding asserted that almost 90% of all arrested persons would be released without money bail. But in reality only about 40% are. And in cases where money bail is set, only 39% actually get out because the rest cannot afford to pay it, Spalding said. 

The intent of bail is to make sure accused persons come back for trial and to keep them from committing crimes while the case is pending. Those main factors should determine whether money bail is appropriate. 

Yet many people are held in jail awaiting trial simply because they are too poor to pay bond. Looking at a snapshot of the Boyle County jail early this year, Spalding said almost half the people were pretrial detainees and most of them were there for drug possession. Most people released pretrial do return to court, especially if they are connected to services they need (such as drug rehabilitation programs) while out on release. 

Spalding’s research shows that keeping people in jail pretrial is very harmful for the individuals as well as the community. People who are incarcerated pretrial are more likely to be found guilty, to plead guilty even if innocent, and to get harsher sentences. 

It is also detrimental to their health: communicable diseases spread easily in jails, and people with mental health issues can deteriorate rapidly, sometimes becoming suicidal. Pretrial detentions are a huge cause of jail overcrowding and are expensive and dangerous for both the incarcerated and the jailers. This does not make the community safer, and in fact results in more crime later, all of which is harmful and expensive to the community, according to Spalding. 

Spalding’s bail research shows a huge variety across the commonwealth. Because bail is set and determined by individual judges, the practice can differ drastically between two adjacent counties with different judges. Boyle County has had one of the lowest rates of release on non-financial conditions in Kentucky resulting in severe overcrowding at the jail, Spalding said. 

During the recent months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people in Boyle County were released without cash bail and overcrowding ceased to be an issue. Yet this could be a temporary, pandemic condition, Spalding explained. Numbers have already started to increase, and things could gradually return to the “normal” rates, she added.

Spalding’s study shows racial disparities pretrial, as well as throughout the criminal justice system, with African-Americans being treated more harshly than others. Even pretrial risk assessment tools have been shown to be racially biased.

Jailer Brian Wofford, who was in the audience, added that because the jail acts as the largest mental health facility in the county, it would be most helpful to have outpatient mental health  care available. 

This is needed for both pretrial release and aftercare for those who have served their time. Without this, Wofford said, those with mental health issues fall through the cracks and will soon be back in jail. Wofford added that the jail population was still under 220, but was increasing, and could soon climb to 440 again.

Local public defender and moderator for the event, Jessica Buck agreed that some people are struggling with bond violations because they cannot get the support and help they need while released and waiting to return to court. 

One of the many questions Buck relayed from the audience was what the public could do to help get bail reform. Spalding suggested community members could write letters to the editor, be vocal on social media and contact their local officials and legislators.