We recently posted a piece about bail which is an essential component of our criminal justice system but which is too often abused by those in charge of running it. What we did not discuss in that piece are the tragic human consequences associated with the denial of bail.
The tragic death of Sandra Bland shocked the conscience of the nation with not only the abusive nature of her violent arrest for a simple traffic ticket, but also the untimely and suspicious nature of her death a few days later in the Waller County Jail. An independent committee was tasked with investigating the incident and making recommendations into the county’s policing and jail practices.
The committee found several areas that needed improvement and recommended, among other changes, better inmate screening for mental and medical problems, body cameras, professional language and demeanor, anger management and psychological evaluations for law enforcement officials and separating jail administration from policing duties.
Denial of Bail Offends Constitution, Principals of Due Process and Decency
What was missing from the report was larger problem of pre-trial detention for individuals who are unable to post a bond to secure their release. In Ms. Bland’s case, she was not released from jail even though bail for her otherwise minor offense had been set at $500.00. Ms. Bland would likely still be alive, and the allegations of murder and police cover-up avoided, had she simply been released on her own recognizance upon her promise to appear at future court settings.
Other Deaths Point to Need for Personal Recognizance Bonds
The death of Patrick Brown is another consequence of the failure of the criminal justice system release individuals during the pendency of their case.
Brown was arrested on April 3, 2016 in Houston and charged with the misdemeanor theft of a guitar.
Man killed in Jail Awaiting Disposition of Misdemeanor Theft Case
The theft of a guitar proved to be a death sentence.
The two media outlets reported that 48 hours after being denied bail, Brown was found “unresponsive” in a “bullpen” cell he shared with other jail inmates charged with minor offenses in the Harris County Jail. He had suffered a severe beating, and the injuries incurred from that beating led to his death a short time later at a local hospital.
Two fellow inmates were charged with aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury.
The brutal death of the 46-year-old alleged petty thief, reported Yahoo News, served as “a stark reminder of the consequences America’s criminal justice system holds for those who can’t shoulder its financial burden.”
County jails, especially those like the Harris County Jail, are dens of brutality and human neglect.
Mentally Ill Man Starves to Death in Jail After Theft of Snickers and Mountain Dew
This reality was evidenced last August in Virginia when Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead in his jail cell. According to a September Slate report, Mitchell had possibly starved himself to death.
Mitchell was one of the hundreds of thousands of inmates in the nation’s jail system who are severely mentally ill. Four months earlier he had stolen a Snickers bar, a Mountain Dew, and a Zebra Cake from a local 7-Eleven. He was denied bail.
Instead of bail, a judge ordered him sent to an overcrowded state mental health hospital, but the facility had no beds to accommodate him, so he languished in county jail without adequate treatment.
In a seemingly hopeless condition, Mitchell elected to starve himself to death.
Mitchell’s death barely got a “glancing mention” in the local news until his case drew the attention of a The Guardian report about the nation’s jail system.
Although he suffered from diagnosed schizophrenia and a host of other mental health disorders, Mitchell was allowed to waive his right to counsel at a bail hearing conducted two hours after his misdemeanor arrest.
He was considered rational enough to waive a lawyer but too irrational to be sent home with family members who were aware of his mental health issues. It was more convenient to deny him bail and hold him in a jail whose gatekeepers could care less if he starved to death.
Negligence, Incompetence, Blame Shifting Plagues Criminal Justice System
As Slate reported, Mitchell was just one of the many thousands of mentally ill inmates who get caught up in the “negligence, incompetence, and bureaucratic blame shifting that plagues a criminal justice system” that would rather let a documented mentally ill petty thief die in jail than release him on bail.
But what happened to Brown and Mitchell pale in comparison to what happened to Michael Tyree in the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California.
Mentally Ill Inmate Beaten to Death by Guards
Three guards entered Tyree’s jail cell and, according to a September 2015 Mercury News report, brutally beat the “mentally ill” inmate to death. The guards, who had a history of beating up mentally ill inmates, were charged with murder. The prosecutor in the case said the guards exchanged “text messages” in which they joked about “roughing up” inmates.
5 of 6 People in Jail Because Cannot Afford Bail
A Marshal Project report last June said that “five out of six” of the people in jail are there because “they cannot afford bail.” The Marshal Project focused on the case of Kalief Browder in its report on jail and bail.
16 Year-Old Charged with Stealing Backpack Held in Jail for Three Years Awaiting Trial
In 2010, Browder was a 16-year-old New York City teenager when he reportedly stole a backpack. He was arrested and placed in Rikers Island, the largest jail in the nation with approximately 10,000 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial because they cannot post bail.
That was the case with Browder. He did not have the money for bail. He remained in Rikers for the next three years, most of which was spent in solitary confinement despite the best efforts by his attorney to get him released on bail.
The petty theft charge was dismissed against Browder in 2013.
He was then featured in a 2014 article in the New Yorker Magazine in which he told the magazine, “I’m not alright. I’m messed up.”
The violence and solitary confinement Browder experienced in Rikers was just too much for him to survive. At age 22, he hanged himself – the victim of another refusal to allow an individual (charged with an offense the State could not prove so they dismissed the charge) to be released on his own personal recognizance bail.
Rikers Island is now under investigation and the constant scrutiny by the Justice Department, as revealed in a recent 60 Minutes report.
But it came too late for Browder.
Bryanne Hammill, a member of the New York Correction Board, told the Marshall Project:
“ … bail essentially results in incarceration because [the defendants] nor their family have the financial wherewithal to post any bail.”
Speaking to the New York Observer, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had this to say about the Browder case:
“There’s just no reason that someone should be held for a long period of time if they can’t pay bail. “[W]e need some type of bail reform. I deeply wish we hadn’t lost him – but he did not die in vain.”
We beg to differ with His Honor, the mayor.
Bland, Browder, Brown, Mitchell and Tyree (and hundreds more like them) did in fact die in vain. They died because the criminal justice system was so insensitive to their presumption of innocence that it set a bail beyond their means to meet. All their deaths were directly linked by the initial refusal of the system to either release them on their own recognizance or set a bail reasonable enough to meet.
In truth, they died because they were poor and disadvantaged. They died because the criminal justice system is more concerned with dispute resolution and forcing plea bargains than due process and justice.
It is time that all non-violent, first time offenders are presumed to be qualified for release on their own recognizance unless there are articulable facts that point to continuing danger to the community or high risk of flight from the jurisdiction.