Views from Kansas: Improve our court system

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Bonds, fees and fines assessed to people facing criminal charges are intended to protect the public, but some fees do not serve the public interest, according to a committee studying fee use in Kansas municipal courts.

The committee, formed at the direction of the Kansas Supreme Court, recently recommended a series of changes to municipal courts in Kansas, and its carefully constructed recommendations deserve consideration.

For example, the current bond system uses a one-size-fits-all approach to assign bond amounts based upon the charges. Although intended to ensure people charged with very serious crimes have a harder time getting released from jail, the traditional bond schedule does not take into account access to financial resources.

Someone with plenty of income facing serious charges might have an easy time making their bail, while someone facing a comparatively minor charge might languish in jail. Potentially dangerous defendants with money can be out on bail with limited monitoring. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are twice as likely as whites to end up stuck in jail unable to pay.

Even if someone is later found not guilty or charges are dismissed, pretrial jail time can cost people jobs, homes or child custody, putting additional burdens on the working poor. Even short sentences can cut the defendant’s ties to the community, making them more likely to commit future crimes.

The additional jail time is also a burden on taxpayers. The U.S. Department of Justice reports 60 percent of people in jail across the United States have not yet been to trial, and 90 percent of them are there because they’re unable to pay bail, costing taxpayers an estimated $14 billion annually.

The committee wisely recommended judges take financial resources into account when assigning bond.

After trial, fines and fees can be similarly problematic for people unable to afford them. The committee again recommended taking income into account, and increasing credit for community service to satisfy court imposed sanctions.

Some of the committee’s recommendations may require changes in state or local laws. Lawmakers should act quickly to adopt the committee’s recommendations. Reforming our municipal court’s approach to bonds, fees and fines is a valuable step toward making our justice system a more equitable and effective safeguard of the public.

• Originally published in the Topeka Capital-Journal

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