Bail Reform is Key to Addressing Inequality in the Justice System

June 18, 2015

On June 9, 2015, Roosevelt Network Senior Fellow Jessica Morris testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary of the Massachusetts General Court on an act reforming pretrial process (H. 1584/S. 802). Her written testimony is reproduced below.

Good afternoon Joint Committee on the Judiciary. My name is Jessica Morris and I am the Senior Fellow for Equal Justice at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. I am also a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley of Western Massachusetts.

The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network is a progressive think tank that empowers young people across over 120 college campuses and 38 states to civically engage with policy. As a Senior Fellow, my focus has been devoted to the issues with the money bail system in Massachusetts. I have compiled research on pretrial and bail reform in a white paper, which you can find attached. Thank you for offering the opportunity to consider alternatives to the state’s current criminal justice system, including pretrial and bail reform.

As of January 1, 2015, 606 men and women are awaiting trial in Massachusetts. They have not been convicted, but often because they could not afford the cost of their set bail, they are detained. There are serious consequences to this system. There is risk of losing custody, public housing, drug treatment, and jobs. Nationally recidivism rates are six times higher than those incarcerated during the pretrial period. Even when the defendant is held for only two or three days, they are nearly 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before their trial compared to those held for just one day. In Massachusetts, pretrial detention is costly to taxpayers. The average cost per year to house an inmate last year is $53,040.87. Additionally, the overcrowding of DOC facilities is at 130%.

This legislation proposes a solution that ensures the Massachusetts justice system remains just. By shifting the otherwise wealth-based bail system into a risk-based system and including a Pretrial Services Division, there are more opportunities for people to transform their lives. Defendants should be assessed for their level of risk and not be disadvantaged if they cannot afford their freedom. The court must maintain the principle of innocent until proven guilty, for Massachusetts people’s lives and well-being are dependent on it.

Last Saturday, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide in his home in the Bronx. Kalief was an inmate at Rikers Island prison who waited for three years without trial. He was accused of stealing a backpack, which he denied. Because he could not afford his set bail of $10,000, he was detained at the prison. Kalief’s tragic death teaches us that as a country we still have a long way to go. Massachusetts must lead the way toward a more just justice system with reasonable risk-based bail reform.

I urge you to pass bill H.1584 as a step toward a more effective and community-driven criminal justice system. Thank you for your time.