Prosecutors in Vermont’s most populous county will no longer recommend cash bail for defendants who are awaiting trial.
Bail refers to the fees that a defendant must pay in order to be released from custody, and courts typically use it to make sure that defendants show up for a trial.
But Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George argues that setting bail punishes poor people who struggle to pay it and then end up staying in jail while awaiting trial, while allowing wealthy people to be released.
George announced on Wednesday that her office will no longer recommend cash bail for defendants in most cases.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke to Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George. Their interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Henry Epp: A few other local prosecutors around the country have made similar moves to this, but you’re one of the first. Why do you believe this is the right thing to do in Chittenden County right now?
Sarah George: I think that the moment is especially important because of COVID. This is something that we’ve been working on in Chittenden County really since I’ve been state’s attorney, just limiting the number of cases that we are asking for bail in.
But the full elimination has sort of come to fruition based on COVID and this idea that we really need to be limiting the number of people in our jails. People being held pre-trial are not the people that should be sitting in our jails right now.
And so what’s the issue that you think this move will fix in the criminal justice system?
A few things. One, it will lower our incarceration rates in Vermont. It will lower literally the number of people that we have in our jails, which is important.
And I also think that it will just allow for a more equal and just criminal system. Right now, our system already disproportionately impacts Black and brown people and poor people, and the bail system just makes that even worse.
The decision to set bail is ultimately up to judges. So just to be clear about the change that’s happening, your office will no longer be recommending bail, but a judge could still set bail for a defendant in Chittenden County. Is that right?
That’s correct. It is ultimately up to a judge, and there are several factors that a judge has to consider, and they’re supposed to put on the record before imposing bail. They could still do that.
Part of this policy is that if that happens, we will always, without question, join with the defense to strike that bail. But even then, a judge could still deny our motion and leave the bail in place.
Some who are hearing about this change, you know, might have concerns about public safety, that people who could pose a threat to the community would be released, who might otherwise not be. What’s your response to that? I mean, will people who could be a public safety risk be released into the community?
I have two answers to that. First, if that was true, it loses sight of the fact that currently people who can post that bail are still in that position. So if an individual is charged with a violent felony and maybe they are a public safety risk, but they get $100,000 bail imposed and they post it because they have access to wealth, those individuals are back into our community.
Bail doesn’t actually do anything to prevent public safety. All it does is hold poor people in jail and let rich people out. The only reason that judges can impose bail is based on a risk of flight. So an individual can only have bail imposed if they are somehow thought to not… they may not show up for court. So this has no impact on the public safety risks of individuals.
After you made this announcement, one of your fellow state’s attorneys, Grand Isle State’s Attorney Douglas DiSabito, quickly came out to say that his office will still use bail. So do you have any support from other state’s attorneys around the state who are interested in joining you in making this change?
I haven’t really had any conversations with other state’s attorneys about this specifically. I know that other state’s attorneys are are aware of the impacts and are, you know, especially during COVID, limiting the number of times that they’re asking for bail. But I don’t have any information about whether any are supportive of the full elimination of cash bail.
You’ve pushed for the Legislature to end cash bail at the state level. How optimistic are you that that will happen anytime in the near future?
You know, it’s hard to tell. I think that this conversation has been really good to get this information out there about about cash bail. I think there’s an incredible misconception amongst Vermonters and frankly, nationwide about what bail is actually for. I’m hopeful that because of these conversations, it might actually have some impact on the legislative process. But I’ve felt that way before and not had the success that I’ve hoped, so it’s really hard to tell.
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