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September 16, 2020

Can a modest federal bail reform bill with bipartisan sponsorship become law in these crazy times?

I do not blog much about bail reforms issues, though these topics were quite "hot" even before the pandemic and these issues seem even more pressing now.  And given notable research documenting a link between federal pretrial release and sentencing outcomes, I am particular interested in the new bill filed earlier this month as discussed in this press release:

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Coons (D-DE), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today introduced the bipartisan Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act of 2020, a targeted bill that would eliminate the blanket presumption of pretrial detention for most federal drug charges.  Pretrial detention rates in the federal system are at record high levels and on an upward trend across all demographic groups.  This legislation would permit federal courts to make individualized determinations regarding whether pretrial detention is appropriate for each defendant charged with a nonviolent drug offense.  Any defendant found to be a flight risk or a threat to public safety would be detained.

This supportive one-pager from the Due Process Institute provides a great account of this bill and its wisdom.  Here is an excerpt:

When a person is arrested and accused of a crime, a judge must determine whether he or she will be released with certain conditions pending resolution of their case or be detained until their conviction or acquittal occurs.  In federal court, the judge’s decision whether to release or detain someone pretrial is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3142, which sets forth several factors for the judge to take into consideration.  The main directive of the statute is that judges should release persons accused of unproven crimes who are not flight risks and who do not “pose a danger to any other person or the community.”  The federal bail statute also, however, includes a small list of offenses for which a legal presumption in favor of incarceration is imposed based solely on the criminal charge instead of any specific assessment of the accused.  While many of the offenses included in this presumptive list might make sense given the gravity of the accusation, the list also unfortunately includes many nonviolent federal drug offenses.

Persons accused of drug offenses represent over 42% of those charged with non-immigration federal crimes.  Statistics show that for them — the second largest group of people in the federal system — it is difficult to overcome this presumption.  In fact, recent federal data show that more than 60% of those charged with drug offenses will be incarcerated before trial.  In addition, data show that pretrial detention puts these defendants at a greater sentencing disadvantage if convicted versus those who are granted pretrial release.  There is also persuasive evidence that the statutory presumption has failed to correctly identify which defendants actually even present a risk.  Unfortunately, the racial disparities we see throughout the criminal system also appear in pretrial release rates in drug cases.  Moreover, some of the most vulnerable people in our society are those currently locked inside jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic — people who have not been found “guilty” of anything and are merely incarcerated while they defend or resolve their charges.  And this pro-carceral presumption is extremely costly.

The Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act presents a simple, effective solution supported by leaders and organizations from both sides of the aisle.  It would merely remove the presumption of pretrial incarceration that currently applies to those charged with nonviolent drug offenses.  The passage of this bill will not mean that all, or even most, accused federal drug offenders will be released before trial.  It would, however, simply permit a federal judge to make a more individualized determination of whether to detain someone based on the same factors they use to evaluate practically everyone else.  Anyone deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety will still be detained.  Anyone released can still be subject to multiple conditions and community supervision by pretrial services.

September 16, 2020 at 08:30 PM | Permalink


This is long overdue - but in my experience, most Judges still look at the individual and not solely the charge they often face eg. 21 USC 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A).

Posted by: atomicfrog | Sep 17, 2020 7:50:43 AM

You’ve provided great information in your blog. Many thanks for sharing the information in your blog.

Posted by: Daniel Tan | Sep 17, 2020 8:01:07 AM

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