By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
A recent administrative order by a circuit court judge in Montgomery County could keep many accused criminals out of jail without bond while they await their initial appearances in court.
The administrative order that eliminates bonds for a list of felonies and misdemeanors was signed by Fifteenth Circuit Court Judge Johnny Hardwick Sept. 22 and goes into effect Saturday. But some law enforcement groups in the state plan to challenge the order.
The order only applies to Montgomery County, but Hardwick on Tuesday told Alabama Daily News he hopes it will serve as a model for bond reform statewide. The judge said that low-income people are disproportionately affected by the current bond system.
“If you don’t have any money, you can’t get out of jail,” Hardwick said.
“… (There are) low-level offenses where people don’t need to be languishing in jail where they may lose their employment, which creates a whole host of other problems.”
Hardwick has been a leader in a criminal justice reform group called Pretrial Alliance Montgomery, which has said it wants to protect public safety and the constitutional rights of defendants. The Montgomery group, formed in 2019, is a “research action site” of a national advocacy organization, Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research. It says about 490,000 people in the U.S. are held in jail before their trials every day, often because they can’t afford bail. Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research is supported by Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based LLC advocating for criminal justice, health and education reforms.
Hardwick’s order says people charged with non-violent traffic of misdemeanor offenses, Class D or C felonies or listed Class B felonies “shall be released on their own recognizance following books and without an initial appearance…”
The order lists six non-violent Class B felonies that would no longer require a bond, including theft of lost property and identity theft.
The order also lists more than 60 violent offenses that don’t qualify for release on recognizance, including murder, rape, assault and child abuse.
Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys, told Alabama Daily News his organization is reviewing ways to challenge the order he said is poorly drafted in what it covers.
The order says bail won’t apply to non-violent Class D and C felonies and Matson said DAs think that could allow for offenses involving child pornography, cruelty to animals or ethics violations to get a signature bond. And while the order lists several Class A felonies that don’t qualify for a signature bond, the list isn’t all encompassing, Matson said.
Meanwhile, Matson said he doubts that signature bonds are enough to guarantee defendants show up for court appearances.
“We are definitely going to challenge this somehow,” Matson said.
Hardwick said officials should be concerned about the “false sense of security we’re giving the community when bonds are set and bonding companies let them get out on minimum payments and payment installment (plans).”
According to Pretrial Alliance Montgomery’s website, policy team members include the local district attorney’s office, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Alabama Senate and local police and sheriff’s offices.
“This is about affording people their Constitutional rights,” Hardwick said.
Read the full order below.