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Bail reforms lead to reduction in Alabama jail populations, but won't be required statewide
As individual cities across Alabama reform their bail practices ... They're presumed innocent, but those in jail stand to lose their jobs, homes and even custody of their children. The bill would have required municipal judges to release low-level ...
By Anna Claire Vollers
As individual cities across Alabama reform their bail practices, a bill that would codify those changes into state law has stalled in the Alabama Legislature.
SenGreg Albritton, R-Range, sponsored SB31, which would require municipal judges to release defendants who are charged with low-level violations.
"The two opposing sides I've been working with seem to have hit an obstacle they can't overcome at this point," said Albritton"(The bill) is done for this seasonWe'll continue to work on it."
Proponents of reform say Alabama's current money bail system keeps some low-level defendants in jail solely because they lack money to make bail while wealthier defendants with identical charges can pay for their freedomThey're presumed innocent, but those in jail stand to lose their jobs, homes and even custody of their children.
The bill would have required municipal judges to release low-level offenders on personal recognizance, meaning no bail at all, or on an unsecured appearance bond, which is basically a written promise to pay in the future if they fail to show up for court.
"Municipalities across Alabama have updated their policies to ensure that county jails don't become debtors prisons, where the poor are forced to wait for court dates for months and their livelihoods destroyed in the meantime," said Shay Farley, Alabama policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement.
Opponents of bail reform are concerned a statewide law could curtail the discretion of municipal judges and might endanger public safetyAL.com has reached out to agencies and organizations that have expressed concern about a statewide law.
As of December 2017, 78 Alabama cities had reformed their bail practices, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including the state's largest municipalities.
In most of those cases, municipal judges issued standing orders requiring defendants charged with low-level offenses to be released on unsecured bonds or released on their own recognizanceLow-level offenses are non-violent misdemeanors that might include loitering, disorderly conduct, no pistol permit, and traffic violations that do not involve alcohol or drugs.
The City of Birmingham saw a 54 percent reduction in jail population after changing its municipal bail procedures in June 2016Its daily population in February 2016 was 156 inmates; by January 2017 that number dropped to 78, according to data compiled by the SPLC.
"We particularly focused on the issue of bail in traffic cases to ensure that citizens with traffic matters do not remain in the city jail unless there are other issues that must be resolved," said Birmingham Municipal Court Judge Andra Sparks.
"We are dealing with the explosion of opioid and other substance abuse issues, like the rest of the country, and clearing the jail of those other matters allows us to concentrate our efforts on supporting the citizens dealing with these life-and-death issues."
In Huntsville, the city jail inmate population went from an average of 184 in February-April 2016 to 133 in the same time period a year later, after enacting further bail reforms in December 2016, according to SPLC data.
Huntsville Municipal Court Judge Sybil Cleveland said she could not be certain what factors played into Huntsville's reduced inmate populationShe said she'd already spent the past few years modifying sentencing practices for low-level offenses.
"People should not be punished simply because they're indigent," said Cleveland"Bail is to guarantee appearance; it's not meant to be punitive in nature."
She said Huntsville uses an unsecured bond process where a defendant doesn't have to pay upfront, but could be arrested for skipping court datesAfter an initial adjustment period, she said, there have not been a significantly larger number of failure-to-appear cases than before the reforms, she said.
Cleveland also said it was important the public know that people charged with violent offenses, alcohol-related offenses and crimes like reckless endangerment or menacing aren't eligible for unsecured bonds.
A few years ago in Mobile, the Metro Jail - built to house just under 1,200 inmates - was chronically overcrowded and holding more than 1,600.
Metro Jail's warden, Trey Oliver, told AL.com in 2016 that a range of reforms, including to the money bail system, contributed to a dramatic decrease in the jail population.
One problem area identified and corrected by former municipal court administrator Nathan Emmorey was that in many cases people booked on "the pettiest of petty offenses" were spending weeks in jail, only to receive a "time served" sentence after finally getting to courtThe bond schedule was revamped to release some of those defendants on their own recognizance.
Other cities that saw reduction in jail inmate populations included Montgomery, Hoover, Dothan and Decatur.
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