Las Vegas Sun

July 16, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Reform overdue for unnecessarily punitive and costly cash bail system

Two people are arrested and charged with an identical misdemeanor offense — say, graffiti. One is white and middle class, the other a blue-collar African-American. They go before a judge who will set their bail.

And just like that, justice becomes anything but blind.

Statistical studies of the cash-bail system have shown that it disadvantages the poor and leads to discrimination against African-Americans, who are treated more harshly than whites by judges setting bail. It’s also grossly punitive in all too many cases — the inability to post bail increases someone’s chances of conviction, unemployment and recidivism.

This is why Nevada lawmakers should make short work of approving a bill to reform the use of cash bail in our state.

As reported by Miranda Willson in the Sun’s sister publication Las Vegas Weekly, the legislation would flip the script on current practices, making bail a last option instead of a default setting. Currently, Nevada operates on a standardized bail schedule. Other options include house arrest or mandating counseling sessions for defendants.

The bill wouldn’t do away with cash bail, which would still be imposed for defendants who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, or pose a flight risk. But it’s designed to limit bail to those serious defendants — repeat offenders, those convicted of violent crimes, etc.

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, a longtime defense attorney who sponsored the bill, said the current approach leads to unnecessary jail time for far too many low-level offenders for merely being unable to post bail.

“It’s a fallacy that we need to keep them in there because they’ll flee,” he told Willson. “It’s a fraud.”

Studies bear him out, which is no surprise. Most people understand that skipping court hearings is a form of shooting themselves in the foot, as it can result in harsher punishment.

Meanwhile, the whole community loses when someone who has committed a minor offense is tossed in jail merely because he or she can’t post bail. For taxpayers, it costs $150 a day to incarcerate inmates in the Clark County Detention Center. For indigent defendants and their families, the penalties can be much more dire even for nickel-and-dime offenses.

“People lose their jobs over parking tickets,” said pastor Raymond Giddens Sr., of Unity Baptist Church. “Some people have lost their homes, even. They’re not able to pay their mortgage or their rent and they’re out on the streets.”

That’s not justice. When some people in our community are losing their futures over offenses that the more affluent could handle by casually dashing off a check, the system needs work. Not only that, but the standard bail schedule varies from city to city in Nevada.

As Willson reported, Fumo’s bill has undergone some massaging during the session to address concerns raised by prosecutors and law enforcement authorities over some elements of the bill, which originally included such measures as a ban on shackling defendants in court.

“We’ve worked with Assemblyman Fumo, and I believe those aspects of the bill are going to be removed,” said Metro Police lobbyist Chuck Callaway. “We’re not going to take a position on the bail part of it.”

With the session down to its final few weeks, we trust that lawmakers can iron out any remaining problems with the bill.

Along with a package of other justice reforms, this measure has the support of a group of organizations ranging from the ACLU to the Koch-backed libertarian lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity.

The bipartisan support isn’t surprising. California, New Jersey and Arizona have already either discontinued or restricted cash bail, and Nevada is among several other states that are considering following the trend.

That’s exactly what should occur. The balance in someone’s bank account shouldn’t be a factor in whether they’re treated fairly in the courts.