Elimination of cash bail proposed

Judges no longer could set cash bond as a condition for pre-trial release under a bill heard by the Judiciary Committee March 4.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist09' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. John Cavanaugh'>Sen. John Cavanaugh</a>
Sen. John Cavanaugh

LB636, sponsored by Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh, would eliminate cash bonds and appearance bonds. He said the cash bail system penalizes poor people, forcing many defendants who cannot afford their bond to plead guilty to avoid more jail time — even if they have a valid defense.

“The system right now bears no relationship to the likelihood of appearance or danger to society,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s only a measure of access to capital.”

When determining whether to release an individual on their own recognizance or under conditions, the court would be required to consider the individual’s employment history, obligations to support dependents or family members, community involvement, ongoing need for medical care and enrollment in an educational program.

LB636 would prohibit consideration of, among other factors, an individuals’ lack of residence, unrelated criminal history or assertion of the right to remain silent or deny consent to a search. The bill would implement similar restrictions when balancing an individual’s pre-trial release with considerations for maintenance of evidence and the safety of victims, witnesses and the community.

Joe Nigro, speaking on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, supported the bill. People charged with crimes are presumed innocent, he said, but if they cannot make bond, they sit in jail until their case is resolved.

“Many of us don’t have to worry about losing our jobs if we miss a day of work, but many of the people we represent will lose their job if they miss a shift. Then they could lose their housing and their children could be placed in foster care,” Nigro said. “Time in jail can be devastating and this is for people who are presumed innocent.”

Also testifying in support of LB636 was Jasmine Harris, director of advocacy and policy for RISE. She said states that already have eliminated cash bond have implemented additional tools to ensure an individual appears at court including risk assessments, substance abuse treatment, mental health care and calls and text message reminders.

“The average bond across the United States for a felony is $10,000, which means people here in Nebraska would have to come up with $1,000 to get out of [jail],” Harris said. “That is not realistic for a majority of people, especially when we have high rates of poverty.”

Opposing the bill was Bruce Ferrell, speaking on behalf of the Police Chiefs Association of Nebraska. He said the cash bail system as it currently exists keeps many individuals accused of violent crimes in jail and promotes public safety.

“Particularly with gun crimes, not only is it a concern for release on bail under those conditions, but we also have to remember the victims of crimes when it comes to bail reform,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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