Lawmakers advance bill setting mandatory minimum bail amounts for violent crimes

House Bill 498 would set bail at $50,000 for violent offenses committed without a firearm and $100,000 for those committed with a firearm.
Published: May. 19, 2023 at 12:31 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE (WVUE) - Lawmakers advanced a bill out of committee Wednesday that could potentially reform how bail is set across Louisiana.

House Bill 498 by Republican State Representative John Stefanski of Crowley would establish mandatory minimum bail amounts for suspects accused of violent offenses at 100,000 dollars for offenses allegedly committed with the use of firearms and 50,000 dollars for those without.

The bill would require that judges, if they decide to use their discretion and set a lower bond amount, physically write out the reason for doing so.

“In the vast, vast majority of cases, the bonds are appropriately set, or no bonds are appropriately set in a case-by-case basis,” Stefanski told the House Criminal Justice Committee. “But, you know I have heard some stories about people being [released on own recognizance], people who have been accused of committing some very serious crimes, and the public does not believe the bond reflects the crime.”

The committee ended up passing the bill on to the full house in a 7-4 vote.

But opponents said the bill could have potentially devastating consequences on impoverished communities, adding to the systemic inequality they said already exists in the process of setting bonds in Louisiana.

“When we’re taking that discretion away from judges, that in and of itself lends a problem,” said Stephanie Willis, Policy Strategist with the ACLU Louisiana. “When we have individuals who aren’t able to pay that amount, they’re forced to stay in jail for longer periods of time. This also induces people to plead guilty just so they could get out of jail, or if they decide not to and take the charge to trial then the individual has to spend a longer period of time in jail.”

Willis pointed out to the committee that the median income in Louisiana is 27,000 dollars, and the median amount of bail set is 24,000 dollars.

“If individuals have an issue with the manner in which judges are setting bail, then we can go to the ballot boxes and we can vote these individuals out,” she said.

Fox 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti agreed, calling the bill a “bad idea,” and noting that, even if an arrestee is later found innocent, there is no way of recouping the bail money, which is typically 12 percent of the amount set.

“In this case, if your child happens to get picked up and is a first-time offender, but a policeman charges him with a certain thing, you have to come up with 12,000 dollars that you’ll never see again just to get him out of jail,” Raspanti said. “They really need to think twice about taking away this discretion from judges.”

No parties spoke in support of the legislation other than the bill sponsor, but it still was approved by the committee. It will now move to the full house for a vote.

Willis said the ACLU recently released a report, detailing the state’s pretrial incarceration rate (three times the national average and the highest of any state on record since 1970), the cost of extended pretrial incarceration to taxpayers and racial disparities in pretrial incarceration.

You can read that report here.

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