Pretrial justice panel discusses bail reform, includes leading national expert from D.C.

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is always interesting to have a leading national expert on a public panel, one whose perspective is shaped by putting into practice the ideas under discussion.

It is even more interesting when, as in the case of Judge Truman A. Morrison III, the expert happens to be the son of the person honored by the lecture series hosting the panel discussion.

The latest iteration of the Truman A. Morrison Memorial Lecture Series of Edgewood United Church on Oct. 5 in Lansing concerned pretrial detention and the reform of bail practices, and there were many other experts on the panel who weighed in from their own perspectives.

They included: Ingham County 54-A District Court Judge Cynthia M. Ward; Anethia O. Brewer, administrator in that court; Ingham County?Prosecuting Attorney Carol A. Siemon; criminal defense attorney Takura Nyamfukudza with Chartier & Nyamfukudza PLC, a member of Gov. Whitmer’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration; and Shannon L.W. Schlegel, a solo attorney, who was a commissioner on the just-dissolved Michigan Trial Court Funding Commission.

Michael Lawrence, Foster Swift Professor of Constitutional Law at Michigan State University College of Law, himself a former Truman Morrison lecturer, moderated the panel.

Truman Morrison II?was the founding pastor of Edgewood United Church. In keeping with the United Church of Christ tradition of inclusivity and fighting for civil rights for all, Morrison II was a life-time advocate for racial and social justice.

His son and namesake went on from law school at the University of Wisconsin to a clerkship at the U.S. District Court Eastern District of  Wisconsin, and then to a position in the District of Columbia Public Defender Service in 1971. He was then appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Superior Court of D.C., where he served for 36 years; he continues to preside over cases as a senior judge. While there, he directed judicial education and started a mentoring program for judges.

In the meantime, he taught at George Washington University Law School and at the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School, among others; spoke widely, including at the White House in 2015; wrote, and gave his consideration to pretrial issues.

Many, including the Edgewood session organizers, believe that when people are required to pay “money bonds,” popularly known as “bail,” in order to leave jail while they await trial, it disproportionately deprives poor people without resources, which often include women and people of color, of their freedom.

The reasons for setting bail are twofold: first, the person arrested may pose a safety threat to the community, and second, it is thought to discourage those accused of crimes from skipping out on future court dates. The number of people held in pretrial detention nationwide increased by almost 433% from 1970 to 2015.

At the Oct. 5 presentation at Edgewood, a large audience heard Morrison speak of his experiences advocating for pretrial detention reform across the country. The  D.C. Superior Court did away with cash bail back in the 1990s.

“I can tell you that I work in a large crime-filled city, and we’ve shown that you don’t need money for safety or for them to return,” said Morrison. “Last year we released 94 percent of the people we arrested in Washington without money bonds, and almost everybody made every single court appearance. Of the small percentage of people who were rearrested [during release time] less than one percent were rearrested for a crime of violence.”

When asked on National Public Radio in 2018 when California did away with cash bail whether he believed that bail is “essentially a tax on poor people,” Morrison answered, very simply, “Yes.”

Nyamfukudza agreed. “I practice in 23 of our counties and in the Eastern and Western U.S. District Courts. I’ve come away with many impressions about money, but the main one is that it’s very expensive to be poor.” He also noted that judges often set bail conditions that are unrelated to the alleged crime.

Schlegel said, “With bail and bail conditions, there’s supposed to be that presumption of innocence and that’s sometimes lost. During a recent jury selection, I was disappointed to hear the number of potential jurors who had already made up their minds, who had no presumption of innocence. In my opinion that’s one of the reasons a lot of people have lost their faith in the criminal justice system.”

Another issue expressed by panel members  (including Morrison, who said he found it shocking) is that until recently it has been very rare for those accused to have an attorney present at pretrial proceedings. Panelists talked favorably about the state’s recent changes to indigent defense, where the recent strengthening of public defender provisions, brought about by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s work, is starting to change that.

“While I agree with the judge [Morrison] that it’s mostly a myth that people do flee, I’m driven to make as sure as possible that the person is not a danger,” said Siemon. “We really only prepare bond recommendations when we think that person is a significant safety risk.” Everyone agreed setting high bail was appropriate in such cases.

Ward, who said that she had been reluctant to speak since she had just started on the bench Jan. 1, told those gathered, “In 1997 a man was charged with crimes resulting from protecting his sister, and he was saved from jail because someone posted his bond, and he did all right from then on. The man protecting his sister was my older brother.

“I became a civil rights lawyer and didn’t think about it a lot for 20 years, but now it’s something I do every day. And I can tell you it’s really a struggle.”

Audience questions for the most part reflected agreement with bail reform.

Morrison concluded by saying, “I know in this church of my youth that my father would be every proud that this many people would come out for a topic like this on a Saturday night.”

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