FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Calling Kentucky's pretrial release system “badly broken," a state agency has asked the state Supreme Court to set “clear constitutional rules" to fix the process used to collect bail money from the accused.
In a petition to the state's highest court, the Department of Public Advocacy raised numerous challenges to pretrial release practices across the state. The petition said Supreme Court action is needed to protect defendants' rights to reasonable bail.
The request comes amid Gov. Andy Beshear's push for state lawmakers to pass sweeping criminal-justice reforms. The new Democratic governor says overcrowded prisons and jails are soaking up large amounts of taxpayer funds that are needed to support education and health care.
Kentucky's overcrowded county jails are clogged with people who can’t afford to post bail.
The Public Advocacy Department's petition was submitted Friday on behalf of 10 clients. Five of them are in jail with cash bail amounts they have not been able pay, meaning if they had more money they would be free, the agency said. Those 10 defendants represent hundreds of others who are either being held pending trial or spent time locked up until they were able to post bail, the agency said.
“Kentucky's system of pretrial release is badly broken," the department's 39-page petition said. “Almost all jurisdictions impose money bail even in cases involving minor offenses, and that money bail often effectively denies the defendant the presumption of innocence.
“What's worse, the application of this money bail practice varies wildly across Kentucky, such that the county which prosecutes the defendant may have a significant impact in whether the defendant remains incarcerated," the petition added.
Both the Kentucky and U.S. constitutions prohibit excessive bail, the department said.
“As legal counsel to most of the thousands of Kentuckians who are held in jails pretrial, we have to act to protect our clients' presumption of innocence and constitutional right to reasonable bail," Public Advocate Damon Preston said in a release Tuesday.
With the petition, the Supreme Court is being asked to decide if “money bail" — the practice of conditioning someone's freedom on whether they can come up with a certain amount of cash — is constitutional, the department said.
The department claims the current bail system violates due process and equal protection rights because someone's wealth cannot be a valid basis to distinguish between incarceration and freedom.
Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. declined comment Tuesday, noting that the issue is pending before the court.
The petition comes as Beshear is urging the GOP-dominated legislature to consider changes to the bail and parole and probation systems, as well as persistent felony offender laws, as part of an effort to ease jail and prison overcrowding.
Beshear, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, has said he wants to revamp the criminal-justice system without compromising public safety.
Past efforts to overhaul the bail system failed in Kentucky's legislature.
The department's request seeks to circumvent the legislature and have the Supreme Court tackle the issue. The Supreme Court is responsible for establishing rules of practice and procedures for the Court of Justice, which includes the conduct of judges and attorneys.
“Kentucky's jails are overflowing," Preston said. “Many clients, presumed innocent, are sleeping on a concrete floor in a jail cell waiting for their day in court. They're there because they've simply been accused of a crime and do not have enough money to buy their freedom. We've talked about bail reform without action for too long. Something has to be done now."