Social justice advocates are hoping a bill focused on pretrial prison reform squeaks through this legislative session. It already has House approval, and is waiting for a Senate vote.
The Delaware Center for Justice helped craft the language in it. It aims to empower courts to make individualized decisions about the terms and conditions of pretrial release, based on an evidence-based risk assessment tool.
And as DCJ’s Kirstin Cornnell says, that means utilizing cash bail less frequently.
“Sometimes dangerous people have the economic means to post that bail, and so the cash system really does nothing to ensure protection of the community," she said.
And on the flip side, Cornnell says cash bail unintentionally detains people who don’t pose a risk to society simply because they don’t have the money to post bail.
“We know that the longer somebody is detained pretrial, the worse their future outcomes are going to be," Cornnell said. "Because people's lives destabilize really quickly, and something as short as a 72-hour detention – in that amount of time - somebody may lose a job, it presents custody issues…there’s a whole host of things.”
The bill also requires courts to review the terms and conditions of pretrial release for those unable to meet them – and detained because of that for 72 hours.
It comes after meetings with other states and jurisdictions about the issue. D.C. recently did away with cash bail altogether, and Colorado has considered it.
“I think the overarching theme that you’re seeing everywhere is a move away from cash bail, and a system that moves towards identifying the appropriate conditions that may ensure pretrial success," Cornnell said.
Pretrial success means the defendant shows up for his/her court hearing and isn’t arrested for a new crime in the future.
But Delaware’s unified prison system poses unique challenges. All defendants assigned a bail amount for pretrial here are sent to the same level-five facility as all other prisoners. In other states, the pretrial population is housed in local county jails.
Around 23 percent of Delaware's total prison population is pretrial. Additionally, Delawareans often face longer-than-average prison stays.
"We know that the longer somebody is detained pretrial, the more likely they are to reoffend in the future," Cornnell said.
Because it's a multi-pronged issue, DCJ and other groups like the ACLU of Delaware say this bill is just the beginning of a much larger – and much-needed - prison reform effort in the First State.