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Community Safety Focused Bond Reform

By Sue Ferrere · 2022-7-14

Since taking office in 2021, District Attorney (DA) Alexis King has changed the bond recommendation strategy from one that relied on a monetary amount to one focused entirely on community safety. The DA's office is committed to ensuring these practices are equitable and promote community safety. We will continue to work with other stakeholders and monitor these data.

The data were collected and provided by Jefferson County Justice Services. The DA's Office worked with Criminal Justice Planner, John Hilgendorf, throughout this process.

What is bond?

Bond is a contract between a person and the court that includes conditions of pretrial release. The conditions may be financial (e.g., payment of cash) or non-financial (e.g., a promise to appear in court or to check in with pretrial services).

What are the types of bond? 

At a hearing to impose bond, the prosecutor’s role is to provide a recommendation to the court. In the First Judicial District, the court imposes:

  • Personal recognizance (PR) bond is a signature bond that often has an unsecured monetary condition, and payment is not required as long as the defendant appears at all future court dates. The defendant’s signature acts as the promise to appear in court.
  • Surety bond is a monetary bond posted through the service of a state licensed bondsman of the defendant’s choosing. The bondsman may require a co-signer and/or collateral to secure the bond.
  • Cash bond is also a monetary bond that requires the defendant, or another person, to pay in cash the full amount of the bond in order to be released from custody.

In addition, the court may order conditions of bond such as pretrial supervision, monitored sobriety, GPS monitoring, etc. If a defendant is unable to post a monetary bond, he or she will remain in custody until their criminal case is resolved. 

A pretrial system that relies on monetary bonds creates significant disparity. Defendants that lack the financial resources to pay bond may face disruptions due to their pretrial detention, such as job loss, housing instability, and health risk. Individuals detained pretrial are more likely to take a plea deal to get out of custody, and they receive longer sentences. Wealthier defendants have an increased chance of going free and never experiencing a life disruption because they have the means to pay a monetary bond. Most importantly, reliance on a monetary amount of bond does not increase the safety of victims.

To rectify this disparity, DA King implemented an evidence-based bond initiative intended to assess risk to the community rather than an ability to pay a monetary amount of bond. If a defendant presents as a community safety risk and no condition of release can reasonably mitigate the risk, the prosecutor will seek a high cash only bond. If the community safety risk is minimal or can be mitigated with conditions of bond, the prosecutor will seek release of the defendant on a PR bond with or without conditions.

As a commitment to ensuring recommendations that focus on community safety, DA King assigned some of the office’s most experienced prosecutors to appear at the bond hearings. In making decisions about whether pretrial detention is necessary, the prosecutor balances guidelines, data from pretrial services including the results of the risk assessment tool, victim input, and their own professional discretion to make informed recommendations about release in each case.

What do the data tell us?

The prosecutor’s recommendation appears to be highly influential in the court’s decision to grant PR. When the prosecutor requests PR, the court orders it 88% of the time. However, when the prosecutor believes there is a safety concern and requests a cash only bond, the court is less likely to impose a cash bond and instead usually opts for a surety bond that allows a defendant to pay a small percentage to a bondsman.

Prosecutors ask for a cash only bond for defendants charged with more serious felony crimes that implicate community safety. This reflects our commitment to keeping the community safe. However, on the majority of the misdemeanor cases and many low-level felonies, prosecutors requested personal recognizance (PR).

Our data show that the new policy has successfully maintained community safety. More than 90% of individuals released on PR bonds have not been re-arrested. Further, this initiative has had little negative impact on whether individuals make it to their court appearances on felony cases, i.e., court appearance rates have remained high (approximately 7% of felony cases fail to appear at their first two hearings).

The DA's office is committed to ensuring these practices are equitable and promote community safety. We will continue to monitor these data.