Across the state, inmates are being held in county jails because they can’t afford to pay the money to get out, and that is something the state supreme court wants to change.
Counties have until 2018 to create an assessment system that would look at which inmates can be released without paying bail. Nine counties are creating pilot programs to start the assessments now.
In Johnson County, officials are looking at who would make those decisions and how they would be made.
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Two key factors they will need to assess is the person’s flight risk and the danger they pose to the community or themselves, Johnson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd said.
The change has some local officials concerned.
Sheriff Doug Cox can see the benefit, which would be reducing the jail population. The jail has been near overcrowding several days in recent months, Cox said.
But he is also concerned about public safety impacts. The assessment could show that an inmate has a low risk and can be released, but then he or she could commit another crime while out of jail, Cox said.
“As a police officer, I worry about when we release someone because they scored a certain score on a test and they go out and hurt somebody,” Cox said.
Prosecutor Brad Cooper said he thinks the program will prove to be unworkable, and will release some minor offenders, who likely would have been released anyway.
The issue is one that has been discussed for years, Loyd said.
For some people, bail amounts — even as low as $100 — are just something they cannot afford. And the concern has been that people should not stay in jail just because they don’t have money to pay to get out, Loyd said.
One question is who would do the assessment and make the decision of who should or should not be released.
Cox is concerned that could be a task that would fall to correctional officers, who already have a heavy workload, he said. And he would rather see the decision made by someone in the justice system, he said.
Loyd thinks the decision could be made by judges when an inmate has an initial hearing. The judge would look at the assessment done to see if it shows the person is a flight risk or a potential danger. If the answer is no, they could be released without paying bail. If the answer is yes, the judge could set a bail amount, Loyd said.
The details are still being worked out, and the county has time to make those decisions, Loyd said.
Local officials, including other judges, the prosecutor and defense attorneys, will work together on the issue. And they can also learn from what the pilot counties are doing, Loyd said.