Fact: the United States incarcerates its citizens at the highest rate in the developed world. Indeed—save one small chain of islands, whose entire population is just a fraction of our prison population—the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest on the planet. And nearly half of our approximately 1.75 million inmates are serving time for nonviolent and/or drug-related offenses.
That is not OK. It is especially disgraceful in instances where poverty is the only factor standing between incarceration and freedom; nowhere is that connection more salient than in the realm of pretrial detention. It seems, however, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel: bail reform—federal and state.
The federal corrections policies—those that prevailed since the birth of the Nixon era’s War on Drugs—are beginning to be dismantled. Of course, that’s hardly surprising, given Attorney General Holder’s unabashed stance on over-incarceration: “It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.” But Holder is on his way out, and we cannot know whether his successor(s) will carry his torch forward.
As for the states, this election season a number of them put their approaches to victimless and/or nonviolent crime on the ballot. For example, voters in three states and 56 municipalities (including Washington, D.C.) had an opportunity to weigh in on how/where marijuana use fits into our society. The result: the majority of voters, across party lines, think it’s time for a change. Eight more states have proposed legalization ballot initiatives for 2016.
The decriminalization of low-level drug offences will, undoubtedly, have tangible effects on incarceration rates. But what of those arrested for the plethora of nonviolent—often victimless— crimes that remain on the books? At least one state is taking action…
In New Jersey—a state where just over 5,000 inmates (or 38.5% of the total jail population) are there simply because they are too poor to afford bail—the state legislature set out to address that problem with a companion bill aimed at reducing the prevalence of pre-trial detention. With its first step, the NJ legislature passed a bill requiring that each defendant be evaluated to determine his/her propensity for recidivism during release, witness intimidation, and flight: low-risk, non-violent defendants shall be released on their own recognizance; those posing a higher-risk will be released subject to certain conditions (i.e., curfews, travel restrictions, and/or electronic monitoring); those posing the greatest risk may be denied bail; and all detained defendants will be entitled to a speedy trial protection. For its second, the legislature voted unanimously to poll the people—via ballot measure—on a constitutional amendment to allow judicial discretion in the pretrial detention of those most dangerous defendants. The Question: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to allow a court to order pretrial detention of a person in a criminal case?” The Answer: Yes. Now, with this tandem effort by lawmakers and voters, the bail reform package is in full effect.
For those whose concern for just policy overcomes the allure of partisan politics, state and local ballot initiatives can offer a keen lens into the hearts and minds of the populace. Although we are reluctant to read too much into the tealeaves (that has pitfalls all its own…), it seems—underneath the partisan gridlock—a sea change may be brewing. Whether this burgeoning trend will bear sustainable fruit—that remains to be seen. In the meantime, we will continue to be encouraged by small wins in the fight for an equitable justice system where socioeconomic status is not fate determinative. Stay tuned.