Lawmakers Hear Testimony on How Cash Bail 'Criminalizes Poverty'

Sept. 13, 2019, 12:52 p.m. ·

State lawmakers are considering changes to the cash bail system in Nebraska. The judiciary committee heard testimony on the topic Friday morning.

Nearly all testimony advocated for some type of reform to the monetary bail system.

Director of Douglas County Corrections Mike Myers says they’ve seen an alarming growth in pretrial detentions.

"In 2015 we averaged 654 individuals per day who were held on a pretrial status," Myers said. "By 2018 that number increased to 959."

Myers says they’ve seen recent success using a public safety assessment to help judges decide whether or not to impose bond.

The assessment looks at whether a person is likely to commit more crimes or skip their court date, and aims to take factors like race out of the equation. That’s the approach most states have taken across the country.

Lavon Stennis-Williams teaches classes at the Nebraska State Prison and Douglas County Jail. She says most of her students are nonviolent offenders who can’t afford bail.

Upcoming Judiciary Hearings

  • September 27: Sex offender registries
  • October 4: Juvenile justice
  • October 25: Nebraska's correctional system, due process for inmates in restrictive housing

"Many will be forced to take plea agreements because they just simply want to get out of jail," Stennis-Williams said.

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro says that’s very common.

"Most people in this room wouldn’t lose their job if they missed work tomorrow," Nigro said. "Many of the people we represent would lose their job if they miss one shift, then they lose their housing and their children could be taken away. And these are people presumed innocent."

Nigro supports ending cash bail altogether, which is what Sen. Ernie Chambers’ bill would do.

"You have a right to an attorney if someone cannot afford one and the state is seeking jail time," said Spike Eikholt of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.

But if the state isn't seeking jail time for the charged offense and the person pleads not guilty, a judge will often set a monetary bail.

"If it's not serious enough to appoint a lawyer, it shouldn't be serious enough to set a money bond," Eikholt said.

Some urged caution in significantly changing the cash bail system.

"I'm not opposed to adjusting the method that determines how detainees are released pretrial," said Brad Johnson, director of Lancaster County department of corrections. "However, I do believe we need to be cautious as to how that change occurs."

Johnson described 52 individuals currently awaiting trial at the Lancaster County Jail.

"I find myself believing the community is safer with most of them remaining in custody," Johnson said.

Meghan Malik, Trafficking Project Manager at the Women's Fund of Omaha, said risk assessments should be particularly thorough for people charged with trafficking or domestic violence.

"The pretrial time period is a particular threat for further violence," Malik said. "Currently many victims utilize this critial time while their offender is held in pretrial detention to create and implement safety plans and ensure future protection from violence."

This interim study committee hearing will guide lawmakers in crafting bills when the legislature is back in session in January.