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Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The Commonwealth’s criminal justice system needs reform

By The Crimson Staff

Last week, public policy think tank Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, also known as MassINC, released a study that highlights the racial and ethnic disparities in Massachusetts’ jail population. The study found that black defendants awaiting trial are greatly overrepresented in some areas of the state, attributable, in part, to far higher average bail amounts. This speaks to a larger trend of racial disparity in incarceration in Massachusetts. Though the state has one of the lowest overall incarceration rates in the country, the numbers for black residents are closer to the national average and relatively high for Latinos.

The study and its results stand as an indictment of the way the criminal justice system works in Massachusetts and across the nation, where too many people, and especially people of color are funneled into a broken prison system. Luckily, the Commonwealth has a readily available way to improve its problem: Legislation currently before the House would introduce risk assessment tools to promote a fairer pretrial process.

Imprisoning those who have yet to face a judge only perpetuates unfavorable circumstances. Approximately half a million people on any given day sit in jail due to their inability to pay bail. Setting a high cash bail amount that the pretrial detainees are unlikely to afford is unnecessary and detrimental: Awaiting trial in jail is disadvantageous to the defendant and can lead to loss of unemployment, housing, and social support.

Moreover, in Massachusetts, few of the factors currently used in setting bail have been shown to have any correlation with the risk of flight, and many characteristics that are linked to that risk are not considered. The state also does not utilize a risk assessment process to determine cash bail amounts, unlike the federal courts and other parts of the nation. The pending legislation would fix these issues.

Reducing bail would also lead to lower costs for the state by reducing the economic burden of pretrial imprisonment. In some parts of the state, the variable cost per bed is nearly $6,000 annually; the additional fixed savings generated by reducing cell numbers would further lower costs.

Attempts have been made to shape a fairer pretrial process in other parts of the country. In Washington, D.C., for example, almost 88 percent of pretrial detainees are released non-financially, to great success: Nearly all released defendants attend their scheduled court appearances and very few are arrested again with new charges. This system is a model that Massachusetts should consider following.

As it stands, Massachusetts’ criminal justice system plagues minorities and the poor, at great cost to the state. Reforming the way the Commonwealth handles pretrial detainees could also help diminish racial and ethnic disparities in Massachusetts and the nation. It is time to truly treat all citizens—regardless of color or income—as innocent until proven guilty.

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