The Rhode Island Public Defender‘s office is petitioning the Rhode Island Supreme Court to end cash bail in Rhode Island during this current spike in COVID-19 cases both in and out of the Adult Correctional institutions (ACI). Right now, those arrested may face a judge who sets bail, even for misdemeanor crimes. Many cannot pay this bail immediately, and are therefore placed in the ACI for what may amount to weeks before their families can get the money together, or their case comes to trial. Note that those arrested and awaiting trial have only been accused of a crime, they have not been convicted.
The Public Defender maintains that the outbreak at the prison, and the overcrowding the prison faces, is making it more difficult to slow the spread of Covid in the facility, putting residents, staff and the general public at risk. To mitigate this risk, the Public Defender is asking the courts to suspend cash bail, that is, allow those facing charges to report back for their hearings on their own recognizance, except “in extraordinary circumstances that must be enumerated on the record.” This would apply to those brought in on alleged probation violations as well.
Though there is a strong argument that such an exception should be made during a pandemic, earlier this year State Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence) and State Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence) made the argument that cash bail for misdemeanor charges should be eliminated, except under certain circumstances, in all cases. And they introduced the bills to do just that, years before Covid hit Rhode Island.
The bills (H7143 and S2288) are similar. The bills eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors, unless the person is charged with a domestic violence offense under chapter 29 of title 12; the person requests such financial conditions; or the court makes a finding on the record that there is a likely risk that:
- The arrested person will fail to appear in the court, as required; or
- The arrested person will obstruct or attempt to obstruct justice, or threaten, injure or intimidate or attempt to threaten, injure or intimidate a prospective witness or juror.
UpriseRI reached out to Representative Williams by phone about her bill.
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“For me, in my experience, and those who have found themselves in the hands of the law being arrested for misdemeanor issues, the system puts this cash bail on them, it’s almost as though they put the noose around their necks, ankles and wrists, to tag them with a scarlet letter kind of thing,” said Representative Williams. “They become a target. That’s how I view cash bail, because first and foremost, it almost always happens to the least that can afford it.
“The petty crimes that they may have committed most often are a hustle to survive. Putting cash bail on them makes them a victim that they can now place on all these bail issues on. The system can lock them up, they can get them for violations. The system can use them for the system’s benefit.
“This is another way of pimping. Pimping the poor community, the community of color, the disenfranchised – so the system can continue moving along. The system is stealing the money this community doesn’t have, and when they get some of it, it’s already owed. So they keep us in a cycle of dependency, of hardship. It’s another form of slavery,” continued Representative Williams.
“It’s a way of keeping their patronage jobs flowing. They can say, ‘We’re getting 50 arrests every week. What they’re not saying is 30 of those 50 are repeat targets of the system. They misrepresent the numbers and inflate the owed costs on these individuals that you know cannot afford it, especially when we’re talking about a misdemeanor.
“If you look at law enforcement policies, it’s almost automatic,” concluded Representative Williams. “Disorderly conduct could as simple as asking, ‘What did I do?’ That’s disorderly conduct, asking a question about why you’re being arrested and harassed. Police are automatically armed with words to harm, to set up and to take advantage of those who are least able to afford it.”
The Center for American Progress concurs with Representative Williams’ assessment of cash bail.
“In effect, the cash bail system criminalizes poverty, as people who are unable to afford bail are detained while they await trial for weeks or even months,” they write on their website. “Cash bail perpetuates inequities in the justice system that are disproportionately felt by communities of color and those experiencing poverty.
“Spending even a few days in jail can result in people losing their job, housing, and even custody of their children. Studies show that pretrial detention can actually increase a person’s likelihood of rearrest upon release, perpetuating an endless cycle of arrest and incarceration. What is more, the cash bail system often leads to the detention of people who do not pose a threat to public safety.“
UpriseRI spoke to Senator Quezada about the bill as well.
“When I submitted that bill a couple of years ago, it wasn’t because of the pandemic,” said Senator Quezada. “It was because people cannot afford cash bail. Many times they don’t have the money, and their families don’t have the money to bail them out, and people stay in prison longer because they don’t have the money to get out.
“You can lose your job, your home, your children. And they have only been charged with a crime, not found guilty.
“That was the reason we put in this bill, because we know and we’re aware that the community members we represent stay in jail for two weeks awaiting bail and they lose their jobs,” continued Senator Quezada. “They even can lose their marriage. So many things can happen to the family in those two weeks.
“I think ending cash bail is the fair thing to do. A lot of times our youth end up in situations and unfortunately, because they don’t have the money and their families don’t have the money, they have to stay in jail for two weeks.
“As soon as we get back to the State House we’re going to make our case to end cash bail. I hope that the Public Defender gets this temporary ban and then we can make this permanent,” concluded Senator Quezada.
In June Representative Williams held a press conference, well attended by her peers in the legislature, outlining 17 policy reforms the state could undertake to really take on systemic racism in the criminal justice system. It is past time to revisit that list, she says.
“Since my press conference in June, where I laid out my 17 ideas and the legislation I have been putting out, I started noticing that all of a sudden the Governor and other entities have started to implement stuff that I was bringing up, but on the down low,” said Representative Williams. “They’re not giving credit where credit is due. But, all of a sudden things are happening.
“It’s good that they can see what I see and what my community has been experiencing.”