The "Dollars and Cents" of Low Bail in Alabama

Mar 19, 2020

An APR News feature 

The violent murders of an Auburn University student and a little girl from Birmingham may change Alabama law. This legislative session, one Alabama senator is proposing an amendment to the Alabama Constitution to take away the right of bail for defendants accused of some of the most serious crimes. This raises concerns over possible unintended consequences. A look at the possible economic impact of this legislation, in part three of a collaboration between Alabama Public Radio and WVUA23-TV.

Alabama Republican Senator Cam Ward is sponsoring the bill to alter the state’s bail system. He wants harsher punishments for violent offenders. He says, ”Right now, if you look, there’s been a couple cases in Alabama where someone who’d been arrested and charged with a violent Class A felony, and was released on bond. Should not have been released, and went out and murdered somebody.”

Senator Ward is talking about the murders of college student Aniah Blanchard and three-year-old Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney. Their remains were both found last fall in separate cases.

The man accused in Blanchard’s death allegedly committed the murder while he was out of jail on bail. He was granted a $280,000 bond for a different case involving attempted murder, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree robbery. This isn’t the only example of someone committing while on bail. One of the suspects charged in the murder of three-year-old “Cupcake” McKinney was also out on bond during her murder. 

Senator Ward’s bill would automatically deny bail for six specific violent offenses. The list includes murder, first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, kidnapping, sexual abuse, or sexual torture and human trafficking. “My bill would just say, 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 says about his proposed bill.  

Not everyone is on board with the legislation. Sonny Brasfield is the Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. He says he worries the bill will make overcrowding in county jails worse.

Brasfield says that between 2014 and 2018, the cost to operate county jails increased by $31M dollars. He says the Department of Corrections cost per day per inmate in 2019 was $60. Brasfield says the county cost would be less, but not by much.  He says he worries Senator Ward’s legislation could end up costing the taxpayer even more money.

“Most people don’t understand that all those costs for people before they are tried, convicted or sentenced, all those costs are paid by the local taxpayer,” Brasfield explains. “Even though a person is arrested, and charged with a state charge, until the move the Department of Corrections custody, it is the local taxpayer who are paying those costs.”

Jenny Carroll is a Professor of Law at The University of Alabama. She says having taxpayers foot the bill for suspects without bail is one issue. Another is the serious economic impact that pre-trial detention creates for the state and individual counties.

“For those folks, not only are the counties footing the bill of housing them in the jail system pre-trial, but those folks are being removed from our economic system,” Carroll says. “They’re not out there earning wages or salaries. They’re not out there providing child care. They’re not out there paying rent and buying groceries and doing all the normal things that consumers usually do in an economy.”

The Hamilton Project is a group that makes policy proposals for growing economies. It studied this issue. The group says on any given day almost a half million people occupy county and city jails despite not having been convicted of a crime.

“The majority of individuals in the county jail system are pre-trial detainees,” Carroll explains. “That means that county sheriffs are having to absorb a tremendous number of individuals within our county jail system because they cannot send off to the state prison system because those folks can’t get out pre-trial.”

Professor Carroll says the amount of people in pre-trial detention can also affect how law enforcement patrol the streets. “When you talk to sheriffs, not only does that impact them on an economic level, they may be having to rent bed space from other facilities. They may be having to go over their budget to accommodate the number of individuals within the jail system, but it’s also causing them to make decisions about arrest and enforcement in the general community. They may be making decisions not to remove someone from the street; not to arrest them because there’s not a place in jail for them because there are all these pre-trial detainees,” she says.

So how can Alabama lawmakers make it easier on the counties? Brasfield suggests, “Pick up the cost of medical care. Some changes in the way we deal with probation violators, speeding up the transfer process of inmates back to county jails. All of those things would help.”

Brasfield says legislation calling on the state to do these things has been introduced this legislative session. Bills to deny bail to suspects of violent crimes are under consideration as well.