No cash, no freedom: Bail means jail for W. MI’s poor


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Chandra Amaya could have bought her freedom if she had $100; instead, she sat in the Kent County jail for 33 days on a misdemeanor larceny charge.

That’s more time than that charge sometimes carries upon conviction.

“I’ve pretty much lost everything,” Amaya told Target 8. “They told me I had to have a $100 bond because I have a job so I should be able to pay it.”

But Amaya couldn’t post the $100 she needed to get out of jail while her case made its way through court. She has since lost her job as a child care worker, one of many negative consequences that often accompany jail stays.

“You can imagine pretty quickly all the cascading failures that come out of sitting in jail,” state Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said.

“If you’re sitting in jail and you’re a renter and you lose your job, you’re probably going to lose not just your job, but you’re also going to lose your housing,” he added.

LAWMAKER: DEFENDANTS POOR, NOT DANGEROUS

LaGrand says too many Michigan judges are setting cash bail on nonviolent, low-risk defendants despite Michigan court rules that say judges “must order” release on personal recognizance, meaning no money upfront, unless the defendant is a public safety or flight risk.

“We’re not talking about people who are dangerous. We’re talking about people who are poor,” LaGrand said.

For one Grand Rapids 18-year-old, the inability to post bail pending trial had tragic consequences.

“If they had let him out… I don’t think he would be dead today,” said Jim Telman, who was a basketball coach and mentor to Djibril Niyomugabo.

Grand Rapids police found Niyomugabo, a refugee from Rwanda, asleep in the back seat of a car he had broken into one morning in January 2016. The 18-year-old had busted out the car’s window and broken a bottle of wine he found inside.

Charged with misdemeanor larceny and malicious destruction of property, Niyomugabo was unable to post $200 to get out of the Kent County jail.

Three days later, deputies found him hanging in his cell.

“Bond is supposed to be for people who probably aren’t going to show up or are a threat to the community,” Telman said. “I don’t think he was either.”

The 61st District Court judge who set Niyomugabo’s bail, Judge Kimberly Schaefer, did not respond to Target 8’s request for comment.

Whether you have to post a cash bail or bond on a nonviolent, low-level charge depends not only on your criminal record and stability of your living situation, but also on the judge handling your case.

When Target 8 sat in on proceedings at Wyoming District Court, it was clear that its judges do not, as a general rule, require defendants to post cash bail or bond on misdemeanor cases.

JUDGE: ‘JUST WANTING TO ENSURE THEY’LL SHOW UP’

But about 12 miles northeast at 63rd District Court on the East Beltline, judges are more likely to require a cash bond.

“My point is not to try to keep them in jail,” 63rd District Court Judge Sara Smolenski said in an interview with Target 8. “I think I’m just wanting to ensure that they’ll show up… and wanting to make sure we don’t have any repeat (arrests).”

If you post bond and don’t show up to your court appearances, you lose the cash.

“It’s like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’” Smolenski said.

However, Smolenski tries to make sure defendants can afford whatever bond she sets.

“If you had to pay $100 cash bond, you could do it?” Smolenski asked a defendant who appeared before her via video feed from jail. “I’m asking just to make sure because I don’t want you sitting there.”

But it’s clear some misdemeanor defendants do sit there.

On the same day Smolenski set Chandra Amaya’s bond at $100, she ordered cash bonds for a total of nine defendants. When Target 8 checked jail records one month later, three of the nine were still in jail awaiting trial on misdemeanors.

Smolenski’s approach is not unique.

WAITING IN JAIL

Of Michigan’s 20,000 or so jail beds, roughly half are filled with inmates awaiting trial.

The populations at eight West Michigan jails also averaged out to about 50 percent of pretrial inmates versus those who had been sentenced.

Inmates awaiting trial*
Allegan Co.: 63%
Barry Co.: 65%
Kent Co.: 37%
Mecosta Co.: 42%
Muskegon Co.: 56%
Newaygo Co.: 18%
Ottawa Co.: 66%
Van Buren Co.: 44%

Target 8 asked Smolenski if it’s fair that some defendants end up sitting in jail based solely on their means.

“I’m not sure it’s fair, but it’s probably somewhat of a reality,” she said. “It’s like, is it fair that some people can drive a car but somebody else can’t drive a car at all?”

Smolenski says if there was an innocent person sitting in jail unable to post bail, she would feel badly; however, she is not aware of any such case.

“I’m not saying this makes it right, but in the end, they get credit for the time served towards any penalty they would get. And I don’t know what the real reason is they couldn’t make bond,” she added.

However, Amaya, 41, doesn’t know if she’ll be released on time served when she’s sentenced.

VICTIM: BOND ‘MADE NO SENSE’

Amaya ultimately pleaded guilty to larceny and was released on personal recognizance after a month in jail.

The man from whom Amaya stole $190 didn’t understand why his old college friend spent a month in jail prior to her plea.

“It was a small amount, it wasn’t thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Scott Verhoven.

“Being a small amount, being she had not been convicted yet… it really surprised me for her to be in there that long,” Verhoven added.

He told Target 8 he had hoped Amaya would get sentenced to a few days in jail and learn her lesson.

“Her having a $100 bond made no sense to me. I’m surprised she even had a bond,” he said.

Because Smolenski has yet to sentence Amaya, she can’t talk about the specifics of the case.

WHEN BOND ‘SEEMS LEGITIMATE’

But Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker defended the $100 cash bond Smolenski set.

“I think a $100 bond seems legitimate when you have no release address, no idea where she’s going to stay,” he said.

It’s a fair concern given that Amaya was staying with Verhoven and his family when she stole cash from them.

“This person was staying with the victim,” Becker said. “She can’t live there because she victimized those people… and she has a prior felony as well, so it’s not like she came in here completely without any past history.”

Amaya was convicted of felony larceny in 1997.

“I have to make sure they show up,” Smolenski explained. “I have to make sure that our public is safe… If I’m not doing it right, what is a better way to do it?”

A BETTER ALTERNATIVE?

Several states have moved away from cash bonds in recent years, and New Jersey and Washington, D.C. have virtually eliminated their use altogether.

Michigan is examining its system of bond-setting, looking for ways to make it more consistent and equitable across the state’s 83 counties.

A June 2016 memo from Michigan’s state court administrator reminded judges that they’re required to release people pretrial or “state on the record” why the defendant poses a danger or flight risk.

“If I’m doing it wrong and the state in its analytical review of (bond-setting) starts to talk to judges about how we should do it, of course I’m going to be listening and of course I’m going to be reviewing how I do what I do,” said Smolenski.

“This movement about the bond reform. It definitely is bringing to light a lot of issues that need to be looked at,” she continued. “How are we doing it, and can we do it better?”

***NOTE: Target 8 used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain data on inmate populations in West Michigan. Eight jails provided snapshots of inmates on three randomly chosen weekdays in July, August and September, 2017. Target analyzed the data to come up with each responding jail’s average pretrial percentage.***