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Douglas County data analyst: Racial disparities in bail bonds may be further evidence of systemic racism

As they often have after past reports, Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council members on Tuesday requested that data analyst Matt Cravens drill down a little deeper and bring back more data — this time regarding bail bonds.

The council members also determined that they want to take a broader look at bail bonds overall, the role it plays, whether it’s effective in its overall purpose, and what the county’s goals are around bonds in general. 

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Cravens presented a report that showed, among other things, that Black people on average must pay higher surety bonds than white people in order to be released from the county jail in district court cases. The latest report builds on previous ones that Cravens has completed, including one that showed that the incarceration rate for Black people in Douglas County is nearly five times that of white people. 

In his analysis, Cravens included data with no factors taken into consideration besides race, but also data controlled for the impact certain factors can have on bond amounts. But he noted that based on his previous research and data collected for the CJCC, many of those factors also seem to be influenced by systemic racism. 

He adjusted for several of the variables that judges may take into consideration when setting bond. Those factors include gender, age, the number of alleged offenses at the time someone is booked, the number of bookings into the Douglas County jail over the years, offense type (violent, drug, and so on), case classification (felony or misdemeanor) and more. 

Cravens pointed out that in Douglas County, Black people are arrested and booked into the jail at three times the rate of white people relative to the population. That can result in a more extensive criminal history, which can then result in higher bond amounts. 

Therefore, Cravens said, “the fact that the system considers criminal history when setting bond may be evidence of some systemic racism.” 

Bond-amts

However, even when adjusted for all of those variables, Cravens’ data showed that surety bonds for Black persons to be released from jail in Douglas County District Court cases are, on average, $133 more than white persons’. 

Typically for surety bonds, the defendant pays about 10% of the amount to a bondsman, or a minimum of $150, according to Cravens’ report. So the result of the $133 disparity is that Black people must pay an average of $13 more to a bondsman than white people, Cravens said. Without any adjustments for the variables, the difference is $413, or about $41 that must be paid to a bondsman, on average.

Cravens also noted in his report that it can take longer for cash and surety bonds to clear for Black people and Native American people to be released from custody than it does for white people. Higher bonds also tend to mean longer stays in the jail, and Black people and Native American people tend to stay an average of about three days longer in jail pretrial than white people, the report shows. 

In a summary in the report, Cravens wrote, “The data reveal how systemic racism impacts the criminal justice system. Race is related to frequency of contacts with the system, criminal history, and number and types of charges. These variables drive decision-making throughout the system.” 

After Cravens’ presentation Tuesday, Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria pointed out that one number that Cravens was using — the total number of bookings into the Douglas County jail over the years, which Cravens had described as a “reasonable proxy for criminal history” — was different from the criminal history that judges take into consideration when setting bond. Judges also receive an assessment of a defendant’s flight risk, potential concern for public safety and more. McCabria said the two were “materially different” in his mind. 

CJCC member Tamara Cash asked if Cravens had looked at disparities in who was granted an own-recognizance bond (which allows people to sign themselves out of jail without paying any money upfront, if they promise to appear in court) versus who was required to pay a cash or surety bond to be released. Cravens said he did do some analysis of that and the differences were modest in comparison, but that data was available. 

The bond data includes instances when people have been released from the jail after an alleged offense, then booked again down the road for failure to appear (FTA) in court. The nature of those initial, underlying offenses can impact the FTA bond amounts. 

But that data is not readily available, so Cravens could not control for the variable of the underlying offense in connection with the FTA bonds for this latest report. He said the only way to see the underlying offense connected to the FTA is to look at each case one at a time.

Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer asked CJCC members to be patient as some of the additional data they’re seeking could take “months or longer” to compile. Some of it could require examining written narratives about individual cases. 

A presentation on mobile responses to behavioral health crises was deferred because the bond conversation took up nearly the entire 90-minute meeting. 

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— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363.

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