HomeBreaking NewsFederal judges misapply bail law, illegally jail arrestees, study says

Federal judges misapply bail law, illegally jail arrestees, study says

  • “People aren’t paying attention to what the law requires,” the study’s lead author says.
  • The Department of Justice says federal prosecutors recently received guidance on the law in keeping with its policy.
  • The federal court system detains “far too many” people before trial, a criminal defense lawyer said.

A Reagan-era law, passed by Congress nearly four decades ago to change the federal bail system in order to address concerns over rising crime committed by arrestees released pending trial, has been wildly misunderstood and misapplied by the federal court system’s magistrate judges, prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers, a new two-year national study finds.

The unprecedented look at federal pretrial detention conducted by the University of Chicago Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic paints a portrait of a judicial system that has neglected the rights of especially poor arrestees and people of color. Such systemic problems are largely the result of what judges and advocates told USA TODAY is a poorly-written, war-on-drugs-era statute known as the Bail Reform Act of 1984, an over reliance on prosecutorial discretion, and risk-averse magistrate judges and federal defenders.

According to the report, in 1983, less than 24% of arrestees were jailed pretrial. By 2019, nearly 75% of them were.

As of June 30, nearly 118,000 people were federally jailed pretrial, according to federal courts data. At the same time, the amount of time presumably innocent people spent locked up awaiting trial has also increased nearly sevenfold, the report found, from an average of less than two months in jail in 1985 to nearly a year now.



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