Judges Are Doing It For Themselves

 

Earlier this month, an Alabama judge signed an administrative order that effectively eliminated the use of secured bail in his county. Presiding Circuit Judge Jerry Selman’s order also requires Walker County courts to conduct initial appearance and indigency hearings within forty-eight hours of arrest. Judge Selman’s order demonstrates two key ways that jurisdictions are moving to improve their pretrial justice practices. 

First, the Walker County order appears to be driven by a desire to avoid litigation. A similar order was signed last year in neighboring Jefferson County after the ACLU and others threatened to sue the county over money-based detention of unconvicted people. One news report states that “In at least one case involving Walker County, plaintiffs have come forward stating that they were held in violation of their constitutional rights.”

The litigation strategy used by groups like the ACLU, Civil Rights Corps, and their local partners includes winning as many cases as necessary until even the suggestion of a lawsuit causes jurisdictions to amend unconstitutional practices. This approach seems to have worked in Jefferson and Walker counties.

The second way Walker County reflects current improvement strategies is one that PJI highlighted in its recent report, Improving Pretrial Justice Using Existing Resources: A Case Study from St. Mary's County, Maryland. That is, local leaders, by virtue of their positions, have the authority to improve their pretrial systems. In the case of Walker County, a judicial leader is setting a standard of practice for release options used by the courts under his control. Leaders in law enforcement, prosecution, and defense, have similar influence over the decisions made by their offices and the outcomes they produce. Statutory and legislative change may be the end goal to firmly codify safe, fair, and effective pretrial practices, but near-term improvements are achievable immediately through individual actions.

As with any systemic change, success will be determined by the willingness of local players to give it a fair chance and by the jurisdiction’s ability to demonstrate success through data collection and analysis. We will keep our eye on Walker County to see how this positive change unfolds.

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