Herring calls for reform of Virginia’s cash bail system

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RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s top prosecutor is calling for changes in the cash bail system, saying it’s unfairly hurting people who can’t afford to post bond.

Attorney General Mark Herring sent a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is currently working on a study about the pretrial process.

The letter says the Commonwealth needs to look at how low-risk offenders are handled in the system. These are people who aren’t considered a threat to the public. Herring explains the way bonds work right now is “causing Virginians to risk losing their driver’s licenses, jobs and family connections if they cannot pay hundreds of thousands of dollars” to post bond.

“I was concerned about the disparities I saw, how Virginia’s current system disproportionately impacts people who are poor and people who are of color,” he said in an interview. “We can’t have a criminal justice system that dispenses fairness and freedom based on wealth.”

study pointed to in the letter show 450,000 Americans are awaiting trial across the country, many because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Herring hopes the Virginia State Crime Commission study will identify how many Virginians are being held in jail because of this. He says the costs to keep offenders behind bars before trial can add up too.

“It costs about $85 a day to keep someone in jail, whereas if someone is under pretrial supervision, it costs about $3 a day. So there’s a real cost savings there if we can do this,” Herring explained.

The memo also suggests crime commission should consider that there is no “methodology to determine an appropriate amount of bail” in Virginia. Some of the things Herring says should be looked into, includes how pretrial service providers calculate a defendant’s likelihood of failing to appear in court and whether they’re a danger. Also, he thinks they should consider whether counsel for defendants or commonwealth’s attorneys should be in court when bail decisions are made.

The letter doesn’t specially address how bail bondsmen play in the system. There was mixed reaction from bondsmen after Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Mike Herring, made a recommendation to do away with cash bonds.

For Richmond, the decision is still up to the judges in the end. Herring said in a previous interview, the guidance suggested if someone is deemed a risk to the community, they’ll ask that the individual is held in jail instead of having a bond bail. If the defendant isn’t a great risk, prosecutors with the office are recommended to ask that they are released on pretrial conditions. Mike Herring said he saw no correlation between “money and risk” in terms of these conditions.  

Members of the Virginia Bail Association are participating in the Virginia State Crime Commission study on the pretrial process. In a statement, President Dave Bourne said, “Our objective is to become part of the solution by working with the Attorney General, Virginia State Crime Commission, Department of Criminal Justice Services, and the State Legislature. Together, we can reform the system into something that will benefit all Virginians.  We at the Virginia Bail Association agree that the current system does need reform, but any adjustments to the current system should be made based on current data, and data that is specific to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The Virginia State Crime Commission is expected to go over the study during its November 8 meeting.

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