Few people charged with criminal offenses in Dane County may have been kept in jail because of unaffordable cash bail amounts as most defendants are released on signature bonds, a report by a county judge found.
But Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara said his report does not address demographic information such as race, age and gender. For that information, cases would need to be examined individually, which he said was not possible given time and resource constraints.
County Sup. Carousel Bayrd, a proponent of criminal justice reform, said the report was a good first step in identifying issues in the bond process but that the numbers need to be broken down by demographics to identify any disparities that exist in the bail and bond system for people of different races, income levels or genders.
McNamara and the county’s Criminal Justice Council’s research team are discussing options to collect that data, he said.
Incarceration of people who cannot afford bail is a national issue, McNamara said, and the report was intended to help identify how many people in Dane County may be affected by costly cash bail.
From 2012 through 2016, signature bonds — in which people charged with crimes sign an agreement to follow release conditions and appear in court as required rather than post cash bail — were issued in 81 percent of all criminal cases, including felonies, misdemeanors and criminal traffic cases, according to the report.
Signature bonds were issued in 97 percent of criminal traffic cases, 86 percent of misdemeanor cases and 69 percent of felony cases. In felony and misdemeanor cases combined, 77 percent of cases were issued signature bonds.
McNamara said defendants — who are presumed innocent — are allowed to stay connected to their families, communities and jobs when given signature bonds. When cash bail is too costly and defendants are kept in jail, McNamara said, they can risk losing jobs or custody of their children.
Under state law, court commissioners who make bail decisions have to determine whether bail is necessary to assure a defendant’s appearance in court and, if so, the minimum amount of bail that’s necessary to achieve that. It is not intended to keep people in custody before trial, McNamara said.
The report did not determine the percentage of defendants who posted bail when cash bail was ordered.
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Prosecutors have greater leverage over people who are in jail because they cannot afford bail, Bayrd said, as those defendants may be more willing to plead guilty to crimes if they could be home sooner, whether or not they have a good defense.
“If you’re in jail, the desire to get out of jail is enormous,” Bayrd said.
Circuit Judge Juan Colas, a member of the county’s Criminal Justice Council, said there is no set goal for the percentage of signature bonds issued.
“What’s important is the people that should be released on signature bond are getting signature bond, and the people that should have cash bail get cash bail,” Colas said. “It’s making the right decision for the right people.”
Other data that should be considered are the rate of defendants on signature bonds showing up for court appearances and the rate of defendants who are charged with another crime while on release, Colas said.
McNamara said in the report that about 81 percent of defendants in Dane County appear at all scheduled dates. He said that seems to be on par with Milwaukee County and the national average.
Sup. Paul Rusk, chairman of the county Public Protection and Judiciary Committee, said he hopes more data will be collected relating to the appearance rate and whether current measures — such as text message alerts and written reminders of court dates — are working.
McNamara said the report also works as a baseline for the statistics of the bail-and-bond process while the county awaits the results of a pre-trial assessment study that is ongoing.
The Public Safety Assessment tool was implemented in April 2017. The tool is used to help judges or court officials determine whether or not a defendant is likely to show up in court or commit a crime while awaiting trial. It is only used by judges or court commissioners in half of all criminal cases as part of a controlled study in multiple jurisdictions by Harvard University.
The data-focused tool is only used to help determine whether a signature bond is issued, not the amount set for cash bail.