An APR News Feature
This legislative session, one Alabama lawmaker is proposing a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s bail system. It would deny bond to anyone accused of some of the most violent crimes, but opponents say there are unanticipated consequences to this law and order bill.
Jenny Carroll is a professor of law at The University of Alabama. She says,
“We know that there’s a disproportionate rate of arrests among minority citizens and citizens who fall at or below the federal poverty line," University of Alabama law professor Jenny Carroll said.
There’s data to back up her claim that people of color are detained at a higher rate. The NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet” shows black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.
Alabama Senator Cam Ward wrote the Senate bill making it tougher for suspects of violent crimes to get bail. He disagrees that the legislation would make it harder on poor and minority individuals saying,
“You have to make sure they have an adequate hearing. There has to be due process. You just can’t totally deny bail altogether. But making sure they have that opportunity within 15 days," he said.
Alabama’s constitution currently says any person can be considered for bail unless they are being accused of capital murder. Ward’s bill would change that by denying bail for any Class A Felony. That includes rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture and murder, along with 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 not.
Carroll argues 15 days is too long to hold someone pre-trial.
“Looking at studies, we know even a 24-hour period of detention can have tremendous economic effects on marginal defendants. To hold them for 15 days, that’s 15 days without your wages, that’s 15 days that you’re not able to pay your rent, that’s 15 days that you’re not able to care for your child, that’s 15 days where your spouse may lose work time because they have to stay home and take on child care responsibilities,” she said.
In rural Alabama, grand juries often don’t meet but twice a year. Carroll said that means it’s possible someone accused of a crime could be detained up to six months before they find out they’re even charged with an offense. The defendant would not be appointed counsel during that time the grand jury decides the case. Carroll said that means six months with no investigation on their behalf.
The professor contends this unfair system would be made even worse under Ward’s bill. She said a suspect might spend more time in jail waiting on a grand jury than they’d get for actually being convicted of the crime.
“It means that you’re having someone that’s being held by the state, at the county jail system pre-trial, for a longer period of time than what the Alabama sentencing guidelines would say they’re eligible for as a sentence," she said.
There’s an argument from the Southern Poverty Law Center that denying a person’s bail automatically before they’ve been convicted of a crime 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," he 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 needs to be more structure when it comes to policy on bail and pre-trial hearings, but it needs to be done in 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."
Ward’s bill is a constitutional amendment. If it passes the legislature, the measure would go to voters for approval, possibly in November.