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Lawmakers Take Up Call to End Cash Bail Bonds

Kathy Willens



Richmond is taking steps to end its cash bail system, and now some state lawmakers are pushing for similar changes in other parts of the state.


Normally, a prosecuting lawyer recommends some amount of money for bail. If the defendant can pay, they get to walk free while they wait for a trial.

“And that recommendation was not a product of anything other than custom, and practice, and instinct,” says Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring.

Herring recently directed his prosecutors to no longer recommend cash bail. He says the system was unfair, and speculative.

“I don’t trust even my instinct as a prosecutor, as the chief prosecutor in the city, to correlate risk and money,” Herring says. “No one can. I’m telling you there is no science behind that.”

Instead of attaching some monetary value to the risk a defendant poses to the community, prosecutors and judges in Richmond will now simply deem someone a risk or not, deciding whether it’s a risk they can manage in the community or whether someone needs to be detained until trial.

“The only force working against prosecutors is custom and practice,” Herring says. “If you’ve worked in a regime where for years you reflexively recommended a bond of $5,000 if someone had been arrested on a charge of possession with intent to distribute, then you -- more than anything else -- have to unlearn or deprogram the practice and instead try to develop markers for assessing risk.”

Herring says he’d like to see states like Virginia work with researchers to develop best practices for gauging risk.

Last week a handful of Democratic lawmakers from Northern Virginia asked officials in Prince William County to follow Herring’s example.

Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy is a public defender and former magistrate judge in Richmond. She says the system has a disparate impact on poor minorities.  

“They’re sitting in jail for weeks, months, sometimes years at a time because they do not have the money to be able to afford their freedom,” Carroll Foy says. “And that is the problem.”

The Virginia State Crime Commission is currently studying the pretrial process, including the bail bond system. They expect to present a report to lawmakers in November.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.
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