Waiting for trial: Lag in judicial system timeline contributes to overcrowding

Kaitlyn Brooks/The Register

The detention center in downtown Richmond. According to Jailer Steve Tussey, an estimated 80% of inmates are still waiting to be sentenced. 

While it is no news that the Madison County Detention Center is bursting at the seams with inmates, the question still remains of what factors are continuously feeding, or worsening, overpopulation across the commonwealth.

Some argue that high crime rates and the opioid epidemic are two of the primary contributors to the county's jail overpopulation crisis. But another helping hand in the ongoing rise in inmates is the extensive lag time in the judicial system from arrest to sentencing.

More specifically, a primary driver for this issue is the county's high rate of pretrial incarceration, according to Ashley Spalding, senior policy analyst with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP).

In Madison County, the jail is at 208% capacity, according to the Department of Corrections. Of those, Jailer Steve Tussey estimates that 80% are unsentenced -- or presumed innocent and awaiting trial.

In a KCEP report, "Disparate Justice: Where Kentuckians Live Determines Whether They Stay in Jail Because They Can't Afford Cash Bail," Spalding notes that only 30% of cases include non-financial bonds in Madison County, meaning that a majority of those arrested are subject to money bail.

"(The incarcerated persons) have to make a payment determined by the judge in order to leave jail while awaiting trial," she said. "And if they can't afford bail, these defendants stay incarcerated at the same time they are presumed innocent... This has serious implications because when people are incarcerated pretrial they lose income and employment and it puts a lot of strain on their families.

"And research shows those incarcerated while awaiting trial are more likely to be found guilty, receive harsher sentences and to plead guilty even when innocent -- and therefore are more likely to be faced with the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. Those who are incarcerated pretrial are also more likely to commit a crime in the future."

Of those that are given a financial bail, Spalding states that only 42% of MCDC inmates are able to afford to pay their bail.

Scott West from the Department of Public Advocacy said the KCEP report reflects what his department has been seeing in the courtroom for years, if not decades.

"Very often the only difference between a makeable bond and an unmakeable bond is where you live," he said.

Mention is made in Spalding's report that by law, money bail in Kentucky cannot be used to punish or detain individuals, but can only be used to ensure reasonable appearance at a trial, and only in the amount "sufficient" to do such.

However, many defendants throughout Kentucky are not able to afford their bail, resulting in being detained until their pretrial hearing.

"Over the last two years, it has become clear anecdotally that judges in different jurisdictions took different approaches to bail, and those differences in approach resulted in differences in outcomes," Josh Crawford, director of criminal justice policy at the Pegasus Institute, said. "This report reinforces that money plays too prominent a position in our pretrial release and detention process, and will continue to do so absent reforms. At its core, the pretrial determination process should be about ensuring a defendant's return to court, and public safety. How much money a person has access to, or a judge's willingness or unwillingness to use money bonds should not be what dictates outcomes."

And according to KCEP report, more often than not, pretrial detention has negative outcomes that impact not only the individual but their family and community as well.

"It can take months for a case to work its way through the system -- time during which an individual who is incarcerated pretrial cannot earn income, keep a job or provide care taking at the home, for example," the report reads.

The report also states research shows people incarcerated pretrial are more likely to be found guilty and receive harsher sentences. Defendants are more likely to plead guilty (although they may be innocent) while detained for pretrial in order to return to their home quickly.

This then puts individuals facing more consequences with having a felony record and it is associated with an increased likelihood of future criminal activity.

And for Madison County, this is proven to be true, as Jailer Tussey states that the MCDC has a recidivism rate of 80%, meaning if he releases 10 inmates today, eight will most likely to return.

Spalding says that the only hope to reprieve this issue would be legislative actions that would change the pretrial and judicial process.

"We need to pass strong legislation in 2020 that will lead to fewer people being detained pretrial because they can't afford it," she said.

Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter at @TaylorSixRR.

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