Updated: Apr 29
Kylie Martin, Staff Writer - Student Life
People attend the Dinners for Democracy event. Photo//Kylie Martin
Penny Kane, a grad student in criminal justice, hosted the fourth Dinners for Democracy event last Monday evening. During the presentation, Kane discussed issues of the cash bail system and possible solutions for reform.
Dinners for Democracy are nonpartisan educational discussions about democracy and other topics that students care about. The events, hosted by Turn Up Turnout, are part of a tri-campus initiative in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn. They are working with students, staff, and faculty to increase education, turnout, and voter engagement.
In-person Dinners for Democracy provide food for all attendees, while virtual Dinners for Democracy provide attendees with $15 gift cards to restaurants and/or stores.
Kane’s presentation, titled “Criminal Justice Reform - The Case of the Cash Bail”, explained topics such as bail, plea bargains, and recognizance while addressing the issues about the cash bail system in Michigan today.
Kane argued that the cash bail system allows persons who have not yet been convicted to wait for their trial outside of jail and should be reserved for people accused of more serious crimes.
She stated that people accused of misdemeanors and non-violent crimes should be released pre-trial of their own recognizance: a bond that an accused person takes in front of a court or magistrate expecting to return to court.
“The only two countries in the world that cash bail is legal is the US and the Philippines. Other countries have outlawed it because of its potential for abuse,” said Kane.
When an individual cannot post bail, it encourages them to take a plea bargain - an agreement in which the accused pleads guilty to a lesser crime for either a more lenient sentence or the drop of another charge. However, while it allows individuals to return to their lives quickly, they return with a conviction, even if they were to be found not guilty during their trial.
Oftentimes, people who take plea bargains are more likely to offend again within two years to meet financial needs that have resulted from their conviction.
“Most people will plead guilty if they're in jail and worried they're going to lose their home, their family, or their jobs, and [worry] less about the long-term consequences of a criminal record,” said Kane.
In cases where an individual neither posts bail nor takes a plea bargain, they remain in jail until their sentencing. In Michigan, the average time in jail until sentencing is 90 days, but in other parts of the country, the time may be well over a year.
Kane shared the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old African American man that was arrested for stealing a backpack in 2010. After he could not post bail and refused to take a plea bargain, he was taken to Rikers Island jail, one of the most violent jails in New York, where Browder remained awaiting sentencing for the next three years.
During his time in jail, Browder was abused by both officers and inmates. He was released in 2013 after being found not guilty, but Browder only survived two years outside before committing suicide because of the PTSD, depression, and anxiety that he developed from his time in jail.
Browder is only one of many that have experienced severe mental health issues due to long periods of time spent waiting for sentencing in jail.
Despite the cash bail’s $2 billion industry, Kane suggests there are ways to reform the system. One of the first solutions she proposes is referrals to social services: “Most people in these circumstances have histories of drug addiction, homelessness or unstable housing, or unemployment…We need care, not criminalization.”
The second reform that Kane proposes is eliminating common obstacles that may prevent people from getting to court: creating free or subsidized transportation to bring people to court, offering childcare on court dates, and sending reminders and other important information over text or an online portal for those that might have unstable housing (i.e. no mail, unstable internet, etc.).
In some states, cash bail has been removed for some misdemeanors, but in Michigan, 60% of the people in jail are waiting to be sentenced, and only 9% are released on recognizance, despite Michigan state law.
“Cash bail has made the incarceration problem worse…Jail time increases poverty and creates a new life trajectory for those accused,” said Kane.
Find out about the next Dinners for Democracy here.