Right now in Alabama, people accused with some of the most serious crimes in the state are allowed out on bail. One state senator is working to keep violent offenders who are charged with these crimes locked up longer. But, in this journalism collaboration with the commercial news team at WVUA23-TV, some say there are unintended consequences in what seems like a law and order issue.
Alabama Republican Senator Cam Wards says it’s time to crack down on people accused of committing heinous crimes. He’s introducing a Senate bill this legislative session that would take away the right of bail for defendants accused of a list of serious crimes.
"Murder, rape, child molestation, human trafficking, certain kidnappings...if you have one of those Class A Felonies, then you’d have to be held without bond for at least 15 days, and then a public hearing is held, and you can decide whether they should remain in jail or not," Ward said.
Ward said his bill was partially motivated by the death 19-year-old Auburn University student Aniah Blanchard. She went missing last October. Her remains were found a month later.
The man accused in Blanchard’s death was out of jail on a $280,000 bond. He was accused of attempted murder, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree robbery, though not all in Blanchard’s death, but in a total separate case. This wasn’t the only incident sparking calls for reform.
Ward also cited the murder case of 3-year-old Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney. The body of the kidnapped Birmingham toddler was found in a landfill last October. One of the suspects charged in the case was also out on bond when the little girl was kidnapped, murdered, and her body left near a landfill.
“Both those young girls would be alive today, if you would have had this bill in place. Now does it impact a lot of cases? Probably not, but if it saves one life, it’s worth it,” Ward said.
Alabama’s constitution currently says that any person can be considered for bail unless they are being accused of capital murder. Ward wants to change that. His bill would deny bail for any Class A Felony. That includes rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture, murder, human trafficking and kidnapping. Ward’s bill would stop any suspect of any of these crimes to get out on bail.
On its surface, denying bail to people accused of violent crimes may sound like a simple law and order issue. But, not everyone is on board with the legislation.
"Our concern is the operation of county jails, the ability of counties to be able to provide safe conditions," said Sonny Brasfield, the executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. "Anything that makes the jails more overcrowded, we are concerned about."
Brasfield said Ward’s proposed legislation will lead to more crowding issues in already packed county jails across the state.
"I can tell you it leads to overcrowding because we’re already very overcrowded at the county level. Would it result in additional people being in the jails? No question about that," Brasfield said.
Last year the association released a report after collecting data from state agencies. A survey of all 67 county budgets shows the number of inmates in county jails across Alabama has almost tripled since 2014. Back then, there were a total of close to 2,000 inmates in county jails. With changes to felony sentencing laws in 2015, the number of inmates housed in county jails rose to over 8,000 by 2018.
"County jails are temporary facilities. They are not constricted to house inmates on a long-term process," Brasfield said. "In theory: you’re arrested, you’re booked into the county jail, you’re arraigned and then you bond out. That’s how things worked 20 years ago, 25 years ago. Today it doesn’t happen that way. A large number of people who are arrested are not able to make bond for one reason or another, so they sit."
Jenny Carroll is a Professor of Law at The University of Alabama. She agrees with Brasfield that the legislation would make overcrowding in county jails worse.
"If you look at a bill like Ward’s, that’s going to increase the number of individuals who would either be eligible for no bail or is going to increase the probability that individuals will not be released on bail by judges or that bail will be set higher, then you can expect that you are going to see an exasperation of that overcrowding problem that we’re already seeing at this county level," Carroll said.
Carroll also said there are questions and fears about basing state law around one or two extreme cases. Ward said he wrote the bail legislation after the murders of Aniah Blanchard and Cupcake McKinney. Dr. Carroll said, “bad cases don’t make good law.”
"For every time a judge gets it wrong like in the case of Aniah Blanchard, there are scores of cases in which defendants were released, either on no bail or very few conditions, and they complied with those conditions," she said. "They reappeared in court, they didn’t create any new safety concerns within the community itself."
Carroll said judges consider factors like flight risk, the severity of the crime committed, repeat offenses and public safety when considering whether or not to revoke bond. She said the factors can be biased against race and gender when deciding on pre-trial hearings. The bar seems to be set low for a judge to consider if a suspect high risk and potentially deny bond, even without Ward’s legislation.
Carroll looked at data on assessment tools from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation that judges use to consider if a suspect is high risk.
"For someone to be considered a high-risk –-they are at risk to reoffend or fail to appear-– that rate is set for 17%. They are 17% likely to fail to appear or to create hazard within the community," she said. "We’re not even talking about a quarter more likely to commit an offense or half more likely to commit an offense than an ordinary citizen. We’re talking about 17%!"
A bill similar to Ward’s legislation has been approved by the Alabama House. Representative Chip Brown’s “Aniah’s Law” would allow judges to deny bond to people accused of committing violent crimes. Representatives unanimously approved the proposed constitutional amendment and accompanying enabling legislation. If it passes the Legislature, the measure would go to voters for approval, possibly in November.