Pass Bill Denying Bail for Some Then Embark on Real Bail Reform

This is an opinion column.

If it saves one life.

That’s state Sen. Cam Ward’s mantra after sharing plans Tuesday to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session proposing an amendment to our arcane, outdated and embarrassment of an Alabama Constitution that would strip bail from those charged with specific serious crimes.

The idea being that some people—while still innocent, at least theoretically, until proven guilty—should not be walking our streets while awaiting trial for murder, rape, kidnapping, sodomy, sexual abuse or torture, and human trafficking. (Capital murder defendants are already denied bail.)

The idea being that because numerous crimes, especially homicides, are retaliatory the bail restriction just might keep the defendant alive.

The idea that some victims we came to know and mourn ourselves might be alive today, others may not have been victimized by violence.

If it saves one life.

The Alabaster Republican was motivated, he says, by the October death of 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard. Ibraheem Yazeed is charged with the kidnapping and murder of the Auburn-area college student; he was out on a $280,000 bond after being charged in a previous case with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of robbery and one count of attempted murder.

The woman awaiting trial as a co-defendant in the kidnapping and murder of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, also last October, was out on bond, too, after being charged with kidnapping her three children from DHR in a previous case.

Then just Tuesday, two Birmingham brothers, both out on bond for murder, were arrested for allegedly shooting two people in Bessemer in December.

State Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile introduced a similar bill last March; it passed the House but died in the dark of the state Senate. He plans to reintroduce it, too, during this session.

I hope one of them passes. (It takes a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate.) I hope our lawmakers display rare bipartisanship and allow us to vote on changing our abomination of a state Constitution.

So do Yashiba and Elijah Blanchard, Aniah’s parents (full disclosure: close friends, too). In a statement released on their behalf, the couple shared they “hope state legislators utilize their resources and power to enact legislation…that protects citizens in similar circumstances [as their daughter].”

Not everyone agrees, and I understand. I understand their trepidation and angst. Because, on the surface, the measure seems like reform in reverse, a Michael Jackson moonwalk, critics charge, that could lead to more people being left behind bars before their day in court.

There is no evidence proving that though, not in the handful of states that enacted similar laws. Not in Arizona, where someone charged with a felony can be denied bail if “the court finds after a hearing … that there is clear and convincing evidence that the person charged poses a substantial danger to another person or the community…”

Both bills to be introduced in Montgomery next month contain similar language requiring prosecutors to meet some standard before bail can be denied.

“The way you have to do these bills, you have to make them narrowly tailored,” Ward, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me on Wednesday. “You can’t say ‘any violent offenders’ or you run into constitutional problems.

“This is probably a small number of people we’re talking about—extreme cases. I don’t think we’ll see a huge spike in [bail denial] for any population.”

Three states—New Jersey, Alaska, and New York—have variously abolished cash bonds, relying instead on a point system to determine if a defendant should be released, held or something in between. Like, say, house arrest. Last year, California eliminated cash bail altogether.

I hope debate on the Alabama bills spark a wider, and more vital, effort to finally reform a system never intended to be a $2 billion industry nationwide that overly incarcerates those who simply cannot afford to pay. And truly, a system that does not anymore guarantee a court appearance than those released without a cash bond.

Never intended to penalize the innocent (and poor)-until-proven-guilty, as it does now. Never intended to be all-but extortion. (’s Anna Claire Vollersreports more than 75 municipal courts in Alabama over the past few years have reformed their bail practices so that poor people charged with minor offenses don’t have to remain in jail when they can’t afford to post bond.)

In its origins, during England’s Anglo Saxon period (410-1066), “money bail” was simply a means to settle disputes. No money changed hands. A defendant only had to demonstrate their ability to pay the victim if the defendant ran off—a surety, usually a relative, guaranteed payment.

It didn’t start to become an industry until the early years of the 20th centurywhen it became harder to find a relative willing to sign and easier to skip town. Then the courts stepped in, requiring bonds to be paid in full before release.

By the mid-1960s, the bail bond industry was an entrenched component of a system just beginning to be fueled and fed by the systemic targeting of African Americans for what would now be considered relatively minor, victimless drug offenses.

Or, better yet, an epidemic worthy of treatment, not judicial mistreatment.

In Norman Pannell vs United States, a bail bonding case argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit in 1963, Judge J. Skelly Wright stated in a concurring majority opinion:

”Certainly the professional bondsman system … is odious at best. The … professional bondsmen hold the keys to the jail in their pockets. They determine for whom they will act as surety — who in their judgment is a good risk. The bad risks, in the bondsmen's judgment, and the ones who are unable to pay the bondsmen's fees, remain in jail. The court and the commissioner are relegated to the relatively unimportant chore of fixing the amount of bail.”

Now the immeasurably very important chore of protecting us all and continuing to reform our broken system falls to our state lawmakers, then, hopefully, to us.

“If it saves one life,” Ward says, “It’s worth, it.”

A voice for what’s right and wrong in Birmingham, Alabama (and beyond), Roy’s column appears in The Birmingham News and, as well as in the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register. Reach him at [email protected] and follow him at

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