Local judges encouraged to lower bail amounts


Indiana courts are working on methods to lower bail costs to make it more fair for people who are poor and can’t pay high bonds.

The courts are pushing judges to be more judicious in setting bail amounts.

“Our superiors, they are pushing the idea that you shouldn’t set high bails,” Superior Judge Mark McConnell said earlier this week at a Dubois County Community Corrections Board meeting. “You should only set enough to assure that people will show up for court.”

That push is from the Indiana Supreme Court, which in September 2016 implemented a rule that trial judges must use evidence-based risk assessments to decide if a person should have a cash bond or be released from jail pending a trial. The rule was tested in several counties, and was extended to all counties Jan. 1.

While the pilot counties tested the rule, the higher courts told judges to not set high bonds because some offenders may not have the ability to pay them.

“What they’re basically saying is that rich people get out of jail and poor people sit there and do time because they can’t raise the bail money to get out,” McConnell said.

McConnell and Dubois Circuit Judge Nathan Verkamp were talking about the idea at the community corrections board meeting, of which they are members. The board also discussed how to encourage offenders using community corrections services to pay for the services. Current statistics show that while 90 percent of participants using the county’s work-release program pay their fees, only 52 percent on home detention do so.

Members asked if people who become delinquent on their payment are put back in jail. Putting someone in jail because of their lack of payment is frowned upon, especially since the reason is that they don’t have the money to pay, the judges explained.

And that led to talk about bail bonds.

The local practice has been to be careful with bond amounts, McConnell and Verkamp said.

“Evidence-based studies have shown that a low-level offender that spends as much as three days in jail when they can’t post a nominal bond quickly becomes a moderate to high-risk offender,” Verkamp said.

At the same time, judges have built extra money in to the bond so “that if this person ultimately ends up getting convicted, then we’ve got enough money set aside to pay our alcohol and drug fees, probation fees, community corrections,” McConnell said. “There’s some of that built in. So some (fees) get paid up front (after conviction), which keeps offenders from getting behind.”

“I always at least make the suggestion, ‘Would you like your bond to prepay your community corrections fees?’” Verkamp said. “And most of the time they say yes. And that money is used.”

With the state’s push, bail amounts will likely continue to decrease, McConnell said.

“So there would be, at sentencing, less money there to throw at all of those different (fees). And there will be more situations of people having to pay as they go, after sentencing,” he said. “So it’s likely to get worse than better in that regard,” he said, “Because they’re really pushing that effort.”

Verkamp and McConnell agree that low-risk offenders should not sit in jail because they can’t afford the bond.

“Say you take a person, a 19-year-old kid gets caught shoplifting, his first offense ever,” McConnell said. “He is thrown in jail with a bunch of serial burglars, and they sit there with them for a month (because he can’t afford the bail). Because of that constant influence around him, basically you’ve converted that kid into a criminal.

“And that’s the idea,” he continued. “You don’t want them sitting in there longer than they have to. It’s just a question of them showing up to court.”

The Supreme Court’s rule change was recommended by a study committee that included state and court officials as well as representatives of several state legal organizations like the Indiana Public Defender Council.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.

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