Dozens of students, community members and criminal justice experts gathered recently to discuss the state of bail reform in the United States during the second installment of Southern New Hampshire University’s Contemporary Justice Series. An earlier forum focused on diversity in law enforcement.
Organizers brought together several experts involved in bail reform efforts to set the stage for smaller group working sessions later in the morning, including:
- Adam Foss, a former Assistant District Attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, founder of the criminal justice reform nonprofit Prosecutor Impact and TED speaker.
- Jeannie Hraska, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire;
- Emma Findlen LeBlanc, senior researcher at the ACLU of Maine; and
- Chief Andy Shagoury, chief of the Tuftonborough (New Hampshire) Police Department and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Problem of Cash Bail
According to data aggregated by researchers at the Sandbox CoLABorative, the cash bail system costs $9 billion annually across the country. A study by the Prison Policy Institute found that as many as 90% of defendants are in pre-trial confinement because they can’t afford their bail, rather than because they were deemed a risk to their community or a serious flight risk.
Foss argued that holding people accused of non-violent crimes because they can’t afford cash bail only makes it more likely they will be arrested again, since their time in jail awaiting a trial can lead to lost jobs, missed counseling or drug treatment appointments and other costs that make their lives less stable.
“Unnecessary pre-trial detention makes us less safe,” Foss said.
Hraska underlined the importance of a law that recently passed in New Hampshire directing judges to consider a person’s reasonable ability to pay bail along with the criminal charge they are facing. The goal is that defendants in the state are not held in jail merely because they can’t afford bail.
“This bill sailed through the legislature,” Hraska said. “For those who know New Hampshire politics, very little sails through the legislature.”
While he agreed that defendants shouldn’t be held in jail because they are poor, Shagoury brought a different view and said more factors need to be considered, especially the perspective of potential victims and how much longer it can take for victims to get justice when a defendant fails to appear at court.
“I don’t think there’s anyone locked up because they’re poor, because they can’t afford it,” he said. “Judges did look at defendants - they didn’t just look at charges.”
A Hacker's Model for Reform
During the second portion of the forum, participants that included about 30 SNHU criminal justice majors, were asked to address three factors in small groups during what Jada Hebra, SNHU’s chief diversity officer called a “Hackathon”:
- What do we need to stop doing to get at this issue?
- Put yourself in the other’s shoes
- How do we solve this problem?
The process, said Jeff Czarnek, associate dean of criminal justice at SNHU, is to generate conversations among community members interested in the issue to continue moving forward toward a better solution. Organizers plan to analyze the ideas generated during the small group discussions and distribute the findings to participants.
“It keeps the dialogue going. It elevates the importance of it for our students. Really at the end of the day, it’s about them,” Czarnek said. “It got the ball rolling in terms of learning, understanding, the sharing of ideas. That’s really what an institution of higher learning should be about.”
Findlen LeBlanc said similar forums are an ideal way to educate community members and help them develop empathy.
“And this felt like a really valuable opportunity to start having conversations with different stakeholders, people who come from really different perspectives and start building the groundwork that there are at least certain problems we all agree are problems,” she said. "Then we can work on solutions, but we first have to get on the same page in terms of identifying what’s not working here.”
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.