New Clark County court practice considers risk when deciding bond amounts

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News and Tribune on 8/12/2017 by Aprile Rickert

JEFFERSONVILLE — A practice designed to increase public safety, reduce recidivism and balance inequalities in pretrial judgments is taking shape in Clark County.

In the past six months, Clark County has implemented pretrial assessments into two of its four courts — Clark County Circuit Court Nos. 1 and 4, and hired two new staff to conduct assessments of incarcerated people before their first bond hearing.

The new system, which funds its new probation staff with grant money funneled into Clark County Community Corrections, is the county’s early adoption of Indiana Supreme Court Rule 26, which states that courts use evidence-based risk assessments to make pretrial decisions. The ruling was set last September and was codified by the legislature to start January 2020. But Clark County, with half its courts on track with the new system, is ahead of the game.

The assessments look at things such as the severity of the alleged crime, a history of such crime and probation status to make decisions on how to set bond and under what conditions a person might be monitored if they are released and required to reappear in court.

The idea is that people are released based on their risk threat to the community and probability of reappearing, not by how much money they have to make bond.

“The bond system in the state of Indiana is inherently unfair,” Jamie Hayden, Clark County chief probation officer said. “In the past it’s been that if you didn’t have the money to make bond, you stayed in jail. If you came from a family that had money, you got out.

“Not exactly equitable in the eyes of most people.”

Prior to this, a person might get a $5,000 bond on a low-level crime and be required to pay 10 percent to get released. If they can afford the $500 bond, they get out. If not, they would be required to stay.

“This prevents that from happening,” Hayden said. “The defendants can be out and still be productive If they’ve got family members, jobs, they can still take care of them.”

An the assessments work the other way around, as well. Someone charged with a violent crime — such as child molestation — could be issued a $20,000 cash bond and pay that and be released.

“Safety of the community and returning to court are the two main reasons to see if somebody should be held in jail or not,” Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael said.

“And just because they have the money to post bail doesn’t mean they’re going to show up [for court]. Just because they have the money to post bail doesn’t mean they’re not going to commit another crime.”

Since all people that pass through Circuit 1 and 4 are getting assessed before their first hearing, it not only gives judges a better idea of how to set bond but gives a clearer idea of what kind of monitoring may be needed for the accused.

“What we’ve found over the last six months is this is working,” Carmichael said. “…We can now place some conditions on folks. I’ve got a lot more people on electronic monitoring than I would have if I’d just said $5,000 [bond] and you post $500 and you’re out and I don’t know where you are.”

Carmichael, who previously served as a public defender, said the new system will better even out the opportunities for offenders. She said in that role, she had a lot of clients who got in jail and would end up taking a plea just because they couldn’t afford the $250 or $500.

“We had a system where poor people were treated differently than rich people for no other reason than their poverty,” she said. “Now we have a system where we look at the offense, we look at the risk level and make a decision based on that.”

She said the next big hurdle will be implementing the assessments into Circuit Court No. 2, where the majority of drug cases are heard.

“I think then we will see an even bigger number of people being released pretrial with the right conditions in place,” she said.