Laura. Yolanda. Tierne. Zeljka. These are the names of four women who paid the ultimate price because of failed money bail systems. And “price” is the right word. Their attackers all had been recently arrested for serious physical abuse against the women, and were in the community after paying money bail for their release. The amount each man paid ranged from $5,000 to $100,000. But no amount would have been enough to protect Laura, Yolanda, Tierne, or Zeljka.
The money bail set in these cases was insufficient not because the men were wealthy or the judges set it too low. It wasn’t enough because money bail does nothing to protect public or individual safety. In fact, in cases of domestic or intimate partner violence, an abuser who has shelled out thousands of dollars for pretrial release may be more set on exacting retribution.
Money should never be the only thing standing between an abused person and someone who intends to continue doing him or her harm. Each arrested person should be assessed on the risks they pose to public or individual safety and of flight from justice, measured by an actuarial risk assessment tool. In concert with the facts of the case and judicial discretion, courts can then decide to detain the individual before trial or to release with conditions meant to increase safety. There are also extra tools that can be used for gauging lethality risks to victims of intimate partner violence. What excuse do we have for not using them?
Will judges and courts always get it right? No. But by making decisions based on objective risk and individual circumstances, they can ensure that they haven’t simply put a price tag on safety and can tell victims and the public that they have been made thoughtfully and carefully.
Recent polling shows that voters want justice systems that make decisions based on risk, not money. 81% of likely voters said they support detaining individuals who demonstrate a high risk of future crime or flight—74% said that risk should be used to make pretrial release decisions, not an arrested person’s ability to pay money bail.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We encourage you to remember the victims of violence and to support pretrial reforms that prioritize safety.