Efforts to reform the bail system in Kentucky and nationwide have stripped the justice system of its power to protect society. Bail reform is a noble and a worthy cause, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of public safety.
Earlier this year, Quintez Brown took a loaded gun into Mayoral Candidate Craig Greenberg’s office, where he knew Greenberg would be, pointed his gun and shot at Greenberg six times. Thankfully, he missed and was arrested without hurting anyone. The public was shocked by the crime, but they were outraged when Brown was released on bail just a few days later, paid for by the Louisville Bail Fund, despite his malicious intent to murder. It’s important to note that attempting to murder a public official is a federal crime, and after he was released by a state judge, the U.S. Attorney’s office filed federal charges and apprehended him.
Brown’s case is not the first time a dangerous person was allowed back into society while awaiting trial — and it’s likely not the last. While advancing the effectiveness and equality of criminal justice will require reforming the bail system, this must be done in a way that still ensures the public’s safety.
The problems within the bail system are hardly a secret. Pre-trial release is often based on the ability to pay a bond rather than the risk the defendant poses to the public. Not only that, but poorer offenders often suffer unnecessary detainment while their wealthier — and sometimes far more violent — counterparts pay to walk free.
For an example of how thoughtful bail reform can effectively mitigate this kind of discrimination, consider Washington D.C., which eliminated cash bail in 1992. In D.C., the decision to detain a defendant is simple; you are detained if you pose a threat to the community or are unlikely to return for your court date. Your ability to pay a bond plays no factor in this decision — and it shouldn’t. A bail system created in this way protects those with fewer financial means from being unnecessarily and unfairly removed from the stabilizing forces of their life, such as their family and jobs. It also reserves pretrial incarceration and the resources within that for the dangerous offenders.
This approach is clearly effective. In 2017, Washington D.C. released 94% of defendants prior to trial, and the vast majority (88%) returned for their court date.
In some cases, determining who ought to be detained should be unquestionably clear. Look no further than in the case of Trinity Randolph, a 3-year-old from Louisville who was fatally shot while playing in her “Frozen” playhouse. Her father was also shot and killed. Despite the severity of this crime, the murderer was offered bail and released. The bail amount was seemingly prohibitively high at $300,000 — but the accused found the funds for his release and serves as an excellent example of why simply increasing the cost of bail is not an effective strategy for detaining violent offenders.
Cases of violent offenders released prior to trial are unfortunately common. In 2017, 26 homicide defendants in Louisville alone were bonded out to home incarceration. The chief reason for releasing someone accused of murder is jail overcrowding. According to a 2019 study by John Jay College and Pew Charitable Trusts, the majority of inmates in Louisville’s largest jail were there for non-violent felonies (38%) and misdemeanors (38%). Jail resources should be used on those who pose the greatest risk to the public, not those who simply can’t afford to get out.
Policymakers are rightly concerned with inequities in the criminal justice system, especially with regard to bail. But the details matter. Last year marked the bloodiest year in Louisville’s history. Refusing bail for violent offenders is not the entire solution to this uptick in violence, but it is a start.
Erinn Broadus is the Deputy Director of Criminal Justice Policy at Pegasus Institute. She has been published in The Enquirer, The Lane Report, Huffington Post, and various blogs. She’s a Young Voices contributor.