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Is it time to end Connecticut’s cash bail system?

RODNAE Productions

Cash bail exposes a widening issue in the criminal justice system: money. Defendants with no means to pay their way out are forced to await sentencing locked up — sometimes for months or years at a time — which can put their families into major debt.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Kelan Lyons to discuss his article, “The problem of cash bail in CT: ‘They just cannot claw their way out’,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: You give the example of one man's uphill struggle to stay out of prison to illustrate the pitfalls of Connecticut's cash bail system. Who is this person and what was his experience?

KL: So this story is centered on this man named Mr. Jean Conquistador. He's a New Britain resident. He comes from an under-resourced community, he is impoverished himself. He has a public defender representing him. He winds up on a probation charge at the beginning of the story. He turned himself into jail because he had heard that there was a warrant out for his arrest. So he turns himself in thinking that he's going to be home later that day. Instead he has a $45,000 bond set against him. He can't afford that bond. He tells the judge in the courtroom that he is going to be locked up.

So he asks court officials to let his family know so they can go get his puppy and they can get his truck out. His truck has tools that are for his livelihood, for his business or for his work. He ends up spending a little over two months in jail during which he loses his housing. I sat in court for a lot of time during the series and Mr. Conquistador's experience really connected a lot of dots for me. It brought to life a lot of things I had been reading about and hearing about anecdotally. He was a guy who had a bond he couldn't afford, who had it set against him by a judge who had been diverted from the criminal legal system many times before.

He tried to get access to resources and did get access to resources when he got out and posted bond, but it took him two months to get that money together for his aunt and his mother to help him out.

WSHU: Basically, this was an example of how unsentenced people account for a larger share of the incarcerated population in Connecticut since COVID. The state has tried to do something to reform the bail system. What have lawmakers tried to do and what's been the result of that?

KL: So state legislators took a shot at ending Connecticut's money bail system a few years ago in the Malloy era. They were unsuccessful, the bail bonds industry was powerfully entrenched. This is something you'll see in our story about New Jersey ending money bail, they wound up reaching a compromise with the bondsman and largely eliminating money bail for misdemeanor offenses with some exceptions. And then a couple of years later, the superior court judges approved a rule change, which allowed individuals who had a bond set of $20,000 or less to post 10% of that without using a bondsman and they'd be able to go home.

So if you have a $20,000 bond, you could put two grand up, go home and you would get that money back. If and when you show up to court. Now that's important because you could do that under the other system, the older system with bondsmen; however, you would not get that money back, the bondsman would get that money as a fee for getting you out of jail.

WSHU: Generally, you have a tougher time in the criminal justice system if you don't have the means. Lawmakers over the years have talked about trying to create a fairer system. And cash bail was one of those things that they talked about, something that could be done to help and yet nothing has been done so far that has been really meaningful.

KL: Well, that's not true. I mean, the state did make significant changes to the money bail system several years ago which has resulted in, I believe, significantly taking a chunk out of the bail bond industries profit. Frankly it's seriously crippled their business and many bail bondsmen that have left and are leaving the industry in favor of other industries like real estate. So I mean the state has made efforts on this, but they did not end money bail in its entirety. And there are still plenty of people who are incarcerated on bonds that they can't afford.

I mean, I think one of the key points in this story and in this series is that something that looks like a low bond on paper is not going to be a low bond to somebody who doesn't have access to money. If you don't have money, $2,000 is no different than $200,000. There's no distinction. You might use a bondsman to get out or you might not be able to afford a bondsman to get out. But if you don't have any money, it does not matter what your bond is, if you're not given a promise to appear and you're not sent home, you're probably not gonna be able to afford it to bond out. Then those individuals are a higher risk for pleading guilty to crimes — perhaps to ones they didn't commit — and they're more likely to get more serious sentences for those crimes, things of that nature. Now that's not to say also, just to note, people are diverted from the criminal legal system all the time.

They're plenty of points in the system that allow people to be sent home from jail without having to post a bond. I mean, they can be police set bond, police can send people home if they so choose on a promise to appear. They can be reassessed by the intake assessment referral specialists, they can be sent home to the jail reinterview program, prosecutors can defer and say that they don't particularly need a bond set. If the judge sides with them they can lower the bond or say that person doesn't need the bond. I mean, there are plenty of ways for people to get out without having to post a bond. But that doesn't mean that there aren't people who aren't sitting in jail right now who are only sitting there because they cannot afford to get out.

WSHU: So Kelan, can you tell us what happened to Conquistador in the long run? How did his case resolve?

KL: I don't know what the latest is on his case but he's not incarcerated at this moment. The last I heard he was complying with the terms of his supervision and he was getting more chances. Something worth noting that in that story is the first judge that he has is different from the judge in the final scene of the story, which speaks to the discretion that the judges have. This judge decided to give him a break at the end. The judge at the beginning was more willing to set a bond on him because he had these other charges, he was under investigation somewhere else. It's just worth noting that different judges can come down with different opinions and that can have serious consequences on people's lives.

WSHU: So basically, depending on who the prosecutor is, who the judges are, who the public defender you get might determine the outcome of your case much more so far as the cash bond system is concerned.

KL: I would say every element makes a difference. Where you get arrested makes a difference. What court you're in makes a difference, what judge you have makes a difference, which prosecutor you have makes a difference, which bail bondsman is in the courtroom at the time probably makes a difference as well. There are so many different ways that these situations can fall that I would say that every little element, every point of contact in the justice system, makes a difference one way or another.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.