Cracking Down On Repeat Offenders Still

This legislative session, one Alabama lawmaker is proposing a constitutional amendment that would reform the state’s bail system.

It would deny bond to anyone accused of violent crimes like murder and rape. But opponents say there are unanticipated consequences to the proposed bill.

WVUA 23 dug deeper into the bill with the help of Alabama Public Radio. In Part 2, we’re taking a look at the impact the bill may have on minorities in Alabama.

“We know that there’s a disproportionate rate of arrests among minority citizens and citizens who fall at or below the federal poverty line,” said University of Alabama Law Professor Jenny Carroll.

There’s plenty of data backing up her claim that people of color are detained at a higher rate. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet shows black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested.

Once arrested, black Americans are more likely to be convicted. Once convicted, black Americans are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.

Alabama Sen. Cam Ward wrote the bill, and he said he doesn’t agree with Carroll’s assertion.

“You have to make sure they have an adequate hearing,” Ward said. “There has to be due process. You can’t just totally deny bail altogether. We’re making sure they have that opportunity within 15 days.”

Alabama’s Constitution currently states any person can be considered for bail unless they have been accused of capital murder. Ward’s bill would deny bail for any Class A felony. That includes rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture, murder, human trafficking and kidnapping.

Defendants would be held without bond for at least 15 days. After that, a public hearing would be held to decide if they should remain in jail or if they can be released while awaiting trial. Carroll said 15 days is too long to hold someone without bond before a trial.

“We know looking at studies that even a 24-hour period of detention can have a tremendous economic effect on marginal defendants,” Carroll said.

Fifteen days means 15 days without wages, without the ability to pay bills, without the ability to care for children.

It’s worse in rural Alabama, Carroll said. In smaller counties, grand juries often meet just twice a year. That means it’s possible for someone accused of a crime to be detained up to six months before finding out if they’ve been charged with an offense. Before a grand jury meets, defendants aren’t appointed counsel. That means six months with no investigation on the defendant’s behalf, Carroll said.

A suspect may spend more time in jail waiting on a grand jury than they would for being convicted of the crime for which they were arrested, she said.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, automatically denying someone bail before they’re convicted of a crime is unconstitutional. But Ward said he’s not worried about the constitutionality in the courts.

“Again, you can’t just automatically deny all the way through,” Ward said. “You have to have a process in place so they at least get some sort of due process hearing if they’re going to be denied.”

Carroll said she thinks there should be more structure when it comes to policies on bail and pre-trial hearings, but that structure should be done the right way.

“Not just in Alabama, but in the U.S. in general you have a criminal justice system that has historically fallen harder on poor and minority individuals,” she said. “Given all we know and all the empirical evidence that we have, it seems a shame, and not only unconstitutional, but shocking. It should shock our conscience that we continue to contemplate statutes that will only reinforce that norm.”

If Ward’s bill passes the Legislature, the measure would go to voters for approval.

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