Amid claims that as many as a quarter of inmates at Dane County Jail remain incarcerated simply because they cannot afford bail, court officials said that number is closer to 15 percent based on a recent snapshot of the jail’s population.
Court Commissioner Jason Hanson told the county’s Public Protection and Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that of the 880 inmates booked into jail at 11 a.m. Monday, 128 were being held only on cash bail.
An amendment to the 2016 county budget asked Hanson and Circuit Judge Juan Colas to present bail determination procedures and answer questions in a public hearing as part of a process to address disparities in the jail.
As the county works to hire a full-time racial disparities data analyst, committee chairman Paul Rusk said Tuesday’s hearing provided an early chance to address claims by some members of the interfaith prison reform group, Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity (MOSES), that 20 to 25 percent of jail inmates are held only because they can’t afford release.
People can be held in jail for initial court appearances, to serve sentences and for other reasons, including suspected probation violations and bail.
The stated purpose of bail is to ensure someone will show up for court.
Of the 128 inmates held solely on bail, Hanson said the median bail amount was $2,000 and the median length of time in custody inmates was 48 days.
“There are not very many people in the Dane County Jail who are there on low-cash bail,” Colas said.
“When we talk about the statistics, I don’t want to imply that it doesn’t have an impact on individuals who are in custody. It does. But it does reflect a balancing of all the interests — the interests of the victim, the interest society has in having a person come back to court.”
Two inmates held around the median — at 46 and 47 days each — face charges of first-degree intentional homicide and homicide by drunken driving and hit and run, causing death. The inmate facing intentional homicide charges is being held on $1 million bail.
The other inmate’s bail was set at $100,000 after failure in the county’s bail monitoring program, which allows individuals charged with crimes to go free with supervision, Hanson said.
“I think what we’re probably mostly concerned about is the people described by the judge who might be sitting in the jail on a pretty low — or what would be perceived as a low bail amount” Hanson said.
“I looked to see how many people were in the jail solely on cash bails of less than $500. The answer was six.”
Another person, held on $100 bail, has three pending cases, including repeated bail jumping.
Cash bail was not set until the third case against the man, and other low-bail inmates had poor court appearance histories, Hanson said.
Sup. Carousel Bayrd, 8th District, said that because the data presented were based on just one day, it was still largely anecdotal.
A comparison of those who committed similar crimes and were able to post bail was missing from the analysis, Bayrd said.
“How do we address the fact that at the end of the day I get charged and given $5,000 bail, I can walk away?” Bayrd asked.
“Even though based on my safety risk, my flight risk, based on my crime, you determined I was this dangerous to society, and you determined this person — who is most likely African-American — poses an equal danger to society and he cannot post $5,000 and I can? That’s the frustration with the system, not with you.”
The county will continue to revisit bail issues, which were included in a sweeping work group report last September intended to combat racial disparities and mental health problems in the county jail.
In an overarching theme, all three groups who authored the report agreed the county should collect and monitor more data on race, gender and ethnicity to help pinpoint and address areas of racial disparities in its criminal justice systems.
The County Board amended Executive Joe Parisi’s budget to include funding for a criminal justice data analyst.
“The whole idea is not to base it on anecdotes,” Rusk said after the meeting. “Without the regular data that we all agree upon, any of the changes we make won’t be measurable.”