Hundreds in Connecticut jailed longer, unable to post bonds of less than $20k

By Pat Eaton-Robb, Associated Press

Sunday, August 30, 2015

JailOf the thousands in pre-trial detention in Connecticut on any given day, more than 500 are held on bonds of $20,000 or less, meaning they cannot come up with the money to contract with bondsmen who typically charge 10 percent.

Those in jail on bond are disproportionately minorities, and the amount of time they spend detained before trial has risen over the last two decades from an average of about two weeks to nearly two months, according to Mike Lawlor, chief of criminal justice policy for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

"Clearly there are way too many people sitting in jail today who don’t present a risk to anyone," Lawlor said.

The state in May received a $150,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to come up with a plan by December to reform the state’s jail system, which includes pre-trial detention and those serving short sentences. Connecticut is in the running to be one of 10 jurisdictions to receive up to $4 million in grant money to implement their plans.

The idea is to help people like Roberto Hernandez, who spent nearly a year in jail after being arrested as a suspect in the robbery of Hartford McDonald’s restaurant in 2005.

Hernandez, of Hartford, had an alibi and didn’t match the description of the suspect. The only evidence against him was a statement from a woman with a long criminal record, who had been in a rent dispute with Hernandez, his lawyer said. But Hernandez was charged with armed robbery and didn’t have the money or resources to post a $100,000 bond.

A judge eventually ordered Hernandez released and charges against him were dropped.

"He had nothing to do with the robbery," attorney David Jaffe said. "But, if you’re in jail because you can’t make a bond, it’s really hard to defend yourself."

Lawlor said the state is working with MacArthur Foundation experts to come up with ideas that will dovetail with Malloy’s Second Chance Society initiative, which made some drug crimes that had been felonies into misdemeanors and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for other drug offenses.

David McGuire, an attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut, said changes are needed in part because the current bond system, which is supposed to be used only to ensure a defendant appears in court, has become a leverage tool for prosecutors seeking plea deals.

"If you are indigent or have few financial resources, even if you are innocent, you may be tempted to plead guilty to a crime you didn’t commit just to get out of jail," McGuire said.

Last year, New Jersey amended its state constitution to eliminate traditional bail for most crimes, but allow prosecutors to hold some people charged with serious crimes without bond, if a judge deems them to be dangerous.

The ACLU is supporting a system in Connecticut that would replace most cash bonds with curfews, travel restrictions or electronic monitoring of defendants.

But changes are being strongly opposed by the bail-bond industry.

Andrew Bloom, president of Bail Association of Connecticut and owner of 3-D Bail Bonds Inc., said such reform could lead to more fugitives on the streets.

"You’re talking about a program that has worked since the 1800s," he said. "I don’t believe the police are out there purposefully arresting people who didn’t commit a crime. Just because they haven’t been found guilty yet, doesn’t mean they are not a danger to the public."