Politics

Some members of the Kentucky legislature want to eliminate the state’s bail system, no longer requiring low-risk criminal defendants to pay bail in order to be released from jail before they head to trial.

The proposal would be a massive change in the way those accused of crimes are treated after they are arrested.

Critics of the current system say it disproportionately harms poor people who can’t afford to pay bail and end up spending long stretches in jail awaiting trial.

Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the current system doesn’t treat all defendant’s equally.

“We have a system now where if you’re wealthy enough, you can get out of jail no matter what you do,” he said. “And if you’re poor enough, you get stuck in jail no matter what you do. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Westerfield, who is also running for attorney general, said that instead of requiring people to pay cash to be released ahead of trial, judges should allow low-risk defendants to go free.

The state already makes risk assessments on people who are accused of crimes to determine if they are a danger to the community or a flight risk. Judges decide at what level to set bail, requiring people accused of more serious crimes to pay more to go free ahead of trial.

Attempts to reform Kentucky’s bail system haven’t gotten traction in recent years, despite support from influential state officials and lawmakers.

Westerfield said in previous years, proposals to eliminate cash bail have stalled amid opposition from locally elected prosecutors and judges.

“That’s part of what we’re fighting there as well, a philosophical concern about the one you don’t see coming,” Westerfield said.

“The defendant who is released pre-trial who is presumed innocent and assesses as a low risk and even looks like they’re a low-risk, no one would object, they’ve got no history, but then they go and do something just atrocious.”

Westerfield said a joint meeting of the state House and Senate judiciary committees will hold an information-only hearing on bail reform during the upcoming session, which begins on Jan 8.

Officials estimate Kentucky incarcerates about 37,000 low-level offenders for an average of 109 days every year, costing the state about $120 million.

Two years ago, Gov. Matt Bevin appointed a task force to look at potential reforms to the state’s criminal justice system. The panel has recommended bail reforms in recent years, but the proposal hasn’t gotten traction.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.