RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia leaders are taking a closer look at how cases are prepared before going to trial.
The Virginia State Crime Commission is working on a number of pretrial process projects right now. One of the studies was reviewed Thursday, focusing on agency services, bonds and bondsmen.
According to the study, there are currently 33 pretrial service agencies which are providing services to about 75 percent of the localities across the Commonwealth. That accounts for about 90 percent of the state’s population.
Thirty-two of these agencies receive about $10.6 million in state funding for the fiscal year 2019.
One of the issues the study points to is how bonds are decided for defendants.
Individuals will receive a charge for an alleged crime and will be evaluated by pretrial service agencies to determine if they’re a risk to the public. That evaluation will be taken to a magistrate before a bond hearing so the magistrate can make an informed decision about the defendant.
Bond decisions are made on a case-by-case basis using statutory requirements and the magistrate’s own discretion.
The study found that this process varies depending on where you live and sometimes it’s called different things too. Overall, the magistrate offices were generally uniform across the Commonwealth, but some of the information judges and magistrates get about the defendant from pretrial services don’t always accurately determine risk factors for releasing the individual.
Here’s an example, detailed by Colin Drabert, the Deputy Commissioner of the VCC.
“The defendant was a Honduran resident. He was charged with forcible rape of a minor under fourteen. The recommendation was to release, however, the evidence at the bond hearing was at the time that the defendant was apprehended on the charge. He actually had a one day – one way ticket to return to Honduras the next day,” he explained before the commission.
Drabert says pretrial officers were also concerned by this process.
“They’re essentially forced to go in and make recommendations in court that even they themselves may know are not proper recommendations, but that is what the instrument is saying,” he said.
One suggested solution is to require magistrates to complete the existing “Checklist for Bail Determinations” form and send it to the court.
This comes on the heels of Attorney General Mark Herring calling for bail reform in a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission ahead of this meeting.
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 said 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. A 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.
VCC’s review today did not address how many Virginians were being held in jail because they couldn’t’ afford to pay up but noted that pretrial services supervision has been proposed as an alternative to cash bail.
In Virginia, many pretrial supervision placements in the 2018 fiscal year done along with a secure bond or cash bail.
There is another project being worked on by the VCC that will go into more depth on the pretrial process, by following nearly 30,000 defendants through court proceedings.
Of these individuals, 72 percent are male and 40 percent are African American. The hope is that this study will be able to evaluate how effective various types of pretrial release are in protecting the public and ensuring people show up to court. This project will be complete next spring.
This conversation is far from over.
The VCC will be meeting again next month to develop recommendations for the General Assembly. These ideas could be turned into legislation.