Some racial disparities can be seen in bond amounts locally, but causes are unclear

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

Douglas Court courts data shows Hispanic inmates received higher bond amounts than other groups for municipal offenses between 2016 and 2020. Data Analyst Matt Cravens shared the data with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council during a meeting on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Data from Douglas County’s district and municipal courts shows some racial disparities in the setting of bond amounts, but what causes them is not yet clear, a county official said Tuesday.

During a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, Data Analyst Matt Cravens showed several data sets related to cash and cash or surety bond amounts for racial groups between 2016 and 2020, including adjusted data showing Hispanic inmates receiving higher bond amounts in municipal court cases compared with other groups. Cravens said the adjusted data accounted for controlled variables, such as age, gender and number of alleged offenses, among others.

Bond is the amount of money that suspects pay to secure their release from jail pending the outcome of their criminal cases. The amount is intended to ensure the suspect’s appearance in court and can be forfeited if the suspect fails to appear.

In some cases, bond amounts are set before a person appears in court based on the offense the person is accused of. But when people are accused of more serious offenses, a judge is often required to set the bond during their first appearance in court. Douglas County also uses own recognizance bonds, which do not require the individual to pay the listed bond amount — these are often used for low-severity crimes. A cash bond requires the individual to pay the entire bond amount, and a cash or surety bond allows the individual to use a third-party bail bond agent to pay just 10% of the bond amount to post bail.

While Hispanic inmates received an average cash-only bond in municipal court of $466, Black and white inmates both received an average of $390, and Native American inmates received an average of $384.

“It seems similarly situated people from different racial groups are not being assigned different bond amounts, besides one group,” Cravens said. “The difference between Hispanic and white amounts is statistically significant.”

He said the higher bond amounts for Hispanic inmates may be because that group has been arrested on suspicion of DUI in Douglas County more often than others. DUIs involve a public safety concern and, consequently, a higher bond amount. Cravens also said that individuals from the Hispanic group tended to post bond more quickly than others, which meant they were posting the bond before a bond-reduction hearing could occur.

But Cravens said that those conclusions were currently just educated guesses and that he would need to dig deeper into the data to better understand the disparity. County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo agreed that the data alone did not provide a simple answer to what was occurring.

“Really, what we’re seeing here is that being Hispanic in our system means that there are significantly different outcomes for folks than other racial or ethnic backgrounds, not necessarily what that difference is,” she said.

Cravens also provided controlled data showing Black inmates receiving higher bond amounts than other groups for cases in Douglas County District Court. According to the adjusted data, Black inmates received an average bond amount of $1,685, while white inmates received an average of $1,552. Cravens said that difference was statistically significant, but he also noted that the actual cash payment for the bond when using a bail bond agent, which is normally 10% of the total bond amount, was a difference of only $13.

The data also showed Hispanic inmates receiving lower average bond amounts, $1,474, and Native American inmates receiving higher bond amounts, $1,625, than white inmates, but those were not considered statistically significant.

But whether that data could help identify the causes of the disparities was up for debate Tuesday among the meeting’s participants.

Shaye Downing, a defense attorney, said that a bond set when an individual was booked into jail was often determined by the offense that the arresting officer alleged to have occurred, and not by a judge. But the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office could then formally charge the individual with a less severe offense, which would eventually result in a lower bond amount.

Cravens specified that the data he was using was from when an individual was released from jail, which may include a bond amount that was changed during the court process. But the chief judge of Douglas County District Court, James McCabria, said he wasn’t sure how useful that bond amount data could be for understanding disparities when the bond was initially set.

“I don’t understand its correlation to what we’re analyzing on the front end,” McCabria said. “Those bond amounts can go a lot of different directions from the time when the case starts and the time when the case resolves,” he added.

But Downing said further investigation of the data could be useful, particularly when considering initial contact with police and why they are arresting an individual. She said that initial contact could be a cause for disparity among bond amounts before judges are even involved.

Portillo said she also believed more data would be useful, but she added that both the arresting officer’s discretion and the judge’s discretion for setting bond amounts should be further investigated. She said the issues were not mutually exclusive, and the CJCC may be able to identify patterns in both that contribute to the higher bond amounts.

“We need to really take a hard look when we see patterns happening at every decision point of the criminal justice system,” Portillo said. “We need to be careful with … positioning some of the problems just at a single point of contact within the criminal justice system.”

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