• 45°

Fix state’s cash bail system

Most of us give little thought to Mississippi’s use of a money bail system. We assume the system for pretrial detention works because it’s the only system we have and/or because we simply have not had any experience with it.

But the system is flawed, according to Cliff Johnson, director of MacArthur Justice Center’s Mississippi office. The system is fairly simple: If you are charged with a crime, a judge may set bail as motivation for you to return to court for the next hearing. But if you can’t pay, you are jailed until your day in court. If bail is set at $10,000, you’ll have to come up with $1,000 to be released.

Some people don’t have $1,000 so they sit and wait until a grand jury can hear their case. Some sit for months in county jails waiting because a grand jury may only meet twice a year.

“Mississippi is dealing with a crisis of injustice,” Johnson said. “In the United States, including in Mississippi, people are innocent until proven guilty.  For that reason, the law says that people should not be locked up while they wait for their day in court.  Only in the rare case when evidence supports a judicial finding that a person is likely to flee the jurisdiction or hurt someone may a court require people to pay bail in order to be released from pretrial detention.” 

In 2018, we reported about Daylan Browder, who spent almost a year in jail while waiting for his case to go before a grand jury. Only after our reporting did Browder get his day in court. He was indicted on seven counts of burglary. One suspect featured in our story was released after a grand jury did not find there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the case.

These suspects presumably could have been released while waiting for a court hearing if they had the financial means to make bail.

Johnson cited a number of factors that contribute to long pretrial incarceration in Mississippi for those who cannot afford bail.  Grand juries meet as seldom as two or three times a year in many of Mississippi’s rural counties, prosecutors often are slow to present cases to the grand jury, there is no limit under Mississippi law on how long a defendant can be held prior to indictment, defense lawyers often ask for trials to be postponed, and the Mississippi Supreme Court rarely enforces Mississippi’s Speedy Trial Act, he said.

Too many of us look upon the pretrial detention system with apathy. “They are criminals,” we tell ourselves. “They deserve to sit and rot.”

But some of them are not criminals. Some have been wrongly accused. Some are innocent. Some are mentally ill. Some simply are uneducated and can’t navigate the criminal justice system, even with the help of a public defender.

Imagine being arrested for a crime you did not commit, then sitting in a jail for months waiting for a grand jury to meet. The jury may return a “no bill,” meaning there was not sufficient evidence to charge you with a crime but months of your life have been lost.

That’s the reality some people face simply because they can’t make bail. That does not feel like justice.

Email publisher Luke Horton at luke.horton@dailyleader.com