HARTFORD — In Connecticut's justice system, people with means are able to post multimillion-dollar bond in murder cases while poor defendants, who are disproportionately black or Hispanic, are locked up on misdemeanor charges because they don't have even a few hundred dollars to post bail.
Hoping to address the disparity, officials are considering limiting the use of cash bail as several other states have done in recent years. Cash and assets would largely be taken out of the equation, with pretrial detention decisions based on the seriousness of the charges, whether a person is too dangerous to be released back into the community, and if they are a risk to flee.
“My sense is that the way the cash bail system operates now, it is in too many cases a punishment for being poor,” said state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat and criminal defense lawyer.
People who cannot afford to post bail often face losing their jobs or their housing, and feel more pressure to plead guilty so they can get out of jail quicker than if they waited to go to trial, Looney said.
At Looney's request, the state Sentencing Commission recently began studying curtailing the use of cash bail, as New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois have done within the past three years. The panel is expected to issue a report with recommendations to lawmakers by the end of the year.
Any proposal to end cash bail, however, is likely to face stiff opposition from bail bond companies and law enforcement agencies, which say states that have reduced the use of cash bail have seen defendants commit more crimes after being released.
Connecticut jails and prisons currently hold about 3,000 people in pretrial detention, including about 420 people with bails under $20,000, according to state court and prison data. Officials say about 500 of those being held are charged with misdemeanors, such as minor larcenies and drug possession. Black and Hispanic people make up about 70% of the entire prison population in Connecticut but just 29% of the state's overall population.
For middle- and high-income defendants, the state's criminal justice system offers a variety of ways to remain free pending trial.
Critics of the system, for instance, point to the recent case of Fotis Dulos, the Farmington man charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in the disappearance of his estranged wife during contentious divorce and child custody proceedings.
Dulos, who died Thursday after a suicide attempt, was freed on $6 million bail in early January after authorities filed the murder charge. But he put down only $148,000 — all but $1,000 of it from a friend — in order to await trial under house arrest with GPS monitoring.
State laws allow defendants to post only 7% of their total bail in cash as a fee to a bail bond company, which keeps the money and insures the total amount of the bond. While 7% of Dulos' bail is about $420,000, the law also allowed Dulos to pay just 35% of the fee up front and go on a payment plan for the rest.
On the day of his suicide attempt, Dulos — who had significant wealth but was also reportedly in financial trouble — was scheduled to appear at a court hearing where he faced the potential revocation of his bail because of problems with assets listed as collateral.
“Situations like this demonstrate that our bail system is rife with classism and racism,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “It’s a system based on monetary resources. We’ve seen that wealthy people with means are able to get out, while people with less means are sitting in jail for days, months or years.”
For many people, finding even a few hundred dollars to post bail can be difficult or impossible, advocates say. To satisfy a $20,000 bond in Connecticut, defendants would need to come up with about $1,400 to pay a bail bondsman.
But opponents of the proposal to end cash bail have pointed to the experience of other states as a cautionary tale.
In New York, critics of recent bail reform cite the case of Tiffany Harris, accused of slapping three Jewish women in New York City in December. She was arrested and released without bail and later was arrested on allegations she assaulted another person.
While the cash bail system may not be perfect, reforms like New York's create their own problems, said Mary Casey, a bail bond company owner in Hartford and a former vice president of Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a national industry group.
“This whole movement of bail reform has created a public safety nightmare,” she said. "They have stopped having any type of accountability. And when that occurs, those victims have now been victimized twice. They don’t get their day in court because the (defendant) doesn’t show up.”