State’s (Massachusetts) high court rules on bail’s impact on poor defendants

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WCVB on 8/25/2017

The case of a Hampden County man locked up for three-and-a-half years awaiting trial because he couldn’t make bail on a charge of armed robbery while masked led to a state high court decision Friday that advocates say will reform a bail system they say punishes poor people.

“Our clients who don’t have the money or the resources to post bail, they’re never given that opportunity to post bail because the bail is being set in an amount that they can’t pay,” Shira Diner, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, told 5 Investigates.
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“This decision is going to make a big change for our clients for poor people and level the playing field and make things more equal when it comes to the bail system in Massachusetts,” she said.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Judicial Court decision said judges must now take into account defendants’ ability to pay when setting bail.

“A bail that is set without any regard to whether a defendant is a pauper or a plutocrat runs the risk of being excessive and unfair,” the decision said. “A $250 cash bail will have little impact on the well-to-do, for whom it is less than the cost of a night’s stay in a downtown Boston hotel, but it will probably result in detention for a homeless person whose entire earthly belongings can be carried in a cart.”

Judicial reform efforts in Massachusetts and across the country are focused on bail systems for what advocates say are the adverse impact they can have on the poor. The Committee for Public Counsel Services filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

“Our clients who don’t have the money or the resources to post bail, they’re never given that opportunity to post bail because the bail is being set in an amount that they can’t pay,” said Diner. “This decision is going to make a dig change for our clients, for poor people, and level the playing field and make things more equal when it comes to the bail system in Massachusetts.”

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, president of the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association, is reviewing the case, a spokesperson said.

The SJC ruled in the case that Jahmal Brangan, charged in a 2014 Springfield bank robbery, was entitled to a new hearing to review the $40,000 in bail that has kept him behind bars for the past three-and-a-half years while awaiting trial.

His attorney told 5 Investigates that judges are too often using bail for “preventative detention”, even though there is supposed to be a separate dangerousness hearing for defendants whom prosecutors believe would endanger the public if let out.

A requst for comment from the Hampden County District Attorney’s office was not returned.

Advocates say the more typical case involves low bails set for often minor crimes, bails that a person of modest means could pay but the poverty-stricken can’t.

“Too many people – who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty – fill our jails and have their lives disrupted because they cannot afford bail. This decision ensures that judges will take the appropriate steps to avoid detaining people simply because they’re poor,” Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program.

 

Additional information: Brangan vs. Commonwealth summary which includes a link to the PDF version of the decision.