Program to study bond reform is extended
ESCANABA — A year-long pilot-program aimed at reducing jail costs by setting reasonable bonds for people awaiting trial has been extended. Delta County District Court was one of five Michigan courts participating in the pilot-program.
The pilot-program was created after Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack decided changes needed to be made in Michigan after looking at bond reform. The program was to conclude this month, however it was extended to April.
According to Delta County District Court Judge Steven Parks, Delta County volunteered as one of the five courts participating in the pilot-program because Emily DeSalvo, then the court administrator for the court, was always looking for ways to be innovative.
“So when Lansing was looking for volunteers to do this pilot-program … (DeSalvo) asked me and I said sure, so we volunteered to do it,” Parks said.
The pilot-program officially started in January 2019.
Courts in Hamtramck, Clinton Township, Mount Pleasant, Flint and Escanaba are participating in the program that has judges setting bonds based on a statistical model of risk.
“The state had developed this risk assessment tool that was developed across other districts through statistical analysis,” Parks said.
The statistical models of risk or risk assessment tool is used to evaluate defendants before they’re arraigned in district court, so judges or magistrates can properly set a reasonable bond.
Parks explained the tool examines the complete criminal history of a defendant before the arraignment, then the defendants are graded on a scale from one to six, or low risk to high risk, in two categories. Those categories are the likelihood of appearing at the next court date and re-offending during pre-trial release.
Another factor considered within the tool, but not given a matrix scale, is if the offense is violent or not.
According to Parks, if the offense is violent, then the defendant is flagged.
The main goal of the program is to make sure bonds are set at an obtainable and reachable amount for defendants charged with non-violent crimes, but does not take away judicial discretion.
Parks explained the risk assessment tool was a way to bring objectivity into the bond setting process.
Overall, the tool was useful, but did not change the way Parks set bonds in Delta County.
Parks said he would look at the tool and take its risk assessment into consideration, but ultimately he made his own decisions by taking into account factors the tool does not consider.
According to Parks, there are two factors the tool does not take into consideration.
He explained the tool does not take into account drug or alcohol addiction, which can be a huge predictor in re-offending and failure to appear, and judge vulnerability.
“If you allow somebody out of jail after a domestic dispute and he or she goes and kills their spouse … if that ever happens — God forbid — that responsibility is going to fall on the shoulders of the judge,” Parks said. “If you just turn your decision making over to the risk assessment tool, that’s not going to help you in that awful day if that day ever came — you’re the one that’s responsible.”
When the pilot-program finishes collecting data in April, the five courts involved will be evaluated on the effectiveness of the assessment tool in setting bonds. If it’s determined to be a success, then more courts in Michigan would likely have to adopt the tool.
According to Parks, the overall tool would definitely benefit bigger counties where judges may not know the defendants, but in smaller counties like Delta County the tool doesn’t take into consideration judges knowing the people who come through the court system.
He added there are aspects the program requires, like having to look at a complete criminal history of a defendant before the arraignment, that are good and should be practiced in all courts.
Overall, bond reform seems to be a bipartisan issue.
“Both parties seem to be in favor of bond reform,” Parks said. “On one side of the issue, maybe people are talking about how wrong it is to have people sitting for long, long, long periods of time before they ever get their day in court. And then on other side of the aisle, you may have people talking about the huge expense to counties by having people sit in jail for long periods of time.”
Although the reasonings behind why the parties are in favor may differ, Parks said in the end it is the courts who are responsible in finding a balance in the welfare of the public and protecting the rights of the accused, who are innocent until proven guilty.