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Bail reform belongs on Connecticut’s agenda

The General Assembly’s work is over, for now. A special session on the budget went longer than most expected as Gov. Dannel Malloy tried to push the second part of his Second Chance Society, a broad set of changes to the criminal justice system in Connecticut.

The last-minute push failed to get even a piece of the legislation passed. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed only 24 percent of voters approve of Gov. Malloy. That’s not a strong position for making big changes.

The big changes also divided people along strange lines. Critics of pieces of the Second Chance Society 2.0 legislation raised concerns about increasing government secrecy and the novel treatment of 20-somethings as not fully responsible for their actions.

While components of Malloy’s proposal were controversial the ultimate motivations shouldn’t be. Connecticut should put people in prison to ensure public safety, but putting more people in prison than necessary is a waste of resources, not to mention human potential. After leaving prison, punishment should end and new opportunities should begin. Whether you believe in forgiveness or second chances, or simply want to prevent people from resuming criminal activity, we can share this goal.

Prison is expensive, so the bar for sending someone there should be sufficiently high to ensure taxpayers get good value for their money. There is a broad area of agreement on who should absolutely be in prison. There is a changing consensus about who definitely shouldn’t be in prison, and the original Second Chance Society legislation last year attempted to realign our laws with current thinking.

In this year’s legislation, Malloy tried to make significant changes in the gray area in between the areas of consensus. With most attention focused on the budget and lawmakers sensing Malloy’s weak position later confirmed by Quinnipiac, it proved too much.

The Malloy administration eventually decided to focus on one area of reform, bail, but that didn’t pass either. Here’s why it should have.

Defendants have to go somewhere while waiting for trial. We have a system that puts some in jail and let’s others free. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how we assign defendants to a category. It’s determined by how much money the defendant has, not how much of a risk the defendant poses.

Malloy’s bail reform proposal would have meant some people who would have waited for trial in jail would no longer wait for trial in jail. If that bothers you, consider this. If the state accused someone with more financial resources of committing the same crime, and otherwise with the same background, that defendant doesn’t wait in jail.

We end up keeping poor people in jail even though we let people much like them await trial at home. This inconsistency tests the logic of our moral reasoning, but it also taxes our resources. In round figures it costs $120 a day to hold a defendant in jail.

Perhaps the most bizarre scenario is this: lawmakers have decided some criminals aren’t worth putting in prison once convicted. They broke the law, but either the crime doesn’t deserve jail time or it’s just not worth paying to keep them in prison. Yet some of these same people who we don’t believe it’s worth imprisoning after conviction, can wait in jail for a trial because they can’t afford bail. That’s pointless.

Reforming bail is an opportunity to save taxpayer money while improving the effectiveness and fairness of our criminal justice system. Although this wasn’t the year, bail reform shouldn’t go away.

Yankee Staff

Yankee Institute is a 501(c)(3) research and citizen education organization that does not accept government funding. Yankee Institute develops and advances free-market, limited-government solutions in Connecticut. As one of America’s oldest state-based think tanks, Yankee is a leading advocate for smart, limited government; fairness for taxpayers; and an open road to opportunity.

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