BISMARCK — State lawmakers listened to feedback on Monday, Jan. 18, regarding proposed changes to state law that would require people arrested for misdemeanors to be released on their own promise to appear in court instead of requiring them to post bail.
Exceptions to that would include people arrested on a misdemeanor warrant when a judge has reason to believe someone will disregard a written promise to appear, as well as other exceptions spelled out in existing law.
The proposed changes would also require that whenever a judge authorizes a misdemeanor, infraction, or Class C felony charge and the presumptive penalty for the charge is probation, judges would be required to issue a summons instead of an arrest warrant and bail — unless otherwise prohibited by law.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill Monday, Fargo-area law enforcement officials voiced opposition to the measure, stating it would make it harder for officers to do their jobs and make it less likely people will make court appearances.
Proponents of the bill said it would help correct one aspect of the court system that can result in different outcomes for people depending on their wealth. They argued people who can't afford bail can get stuck in jail, triggering downward spirals in their lives.
One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said that for some individuals coming up with $500 or even $800 for bail isn't an issue.
But for others, she said, posting bail is impossible, meaning a stint in jail can lead to the loss of a job and eventually the loss of a home and vehicle.
"Research has shown that cash bail systems are especially burdensome on the lowest earners in our community," Roers Jones said.
"This, on top of the fact that many people who are arrested are supporting families, leads to more and more of our lower income arrestees pleading guilty to charges that could oftentimes be pled down, or even dropped, to just get things over with and get out of jail," Roers Jones told the committee.
Travis Finck, executive director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, urged the committee to give the bill a "do pass" recommendation, stating that under the current system defendants that have money are more apt to get out of jail while awaiting trial than defendants who don't have money.
"This is a Constitutional issue," Finck said. "I have seen people plead guilty simply to get out of jail. That should shake every single person to their core when we talk about Constitutional values."
Adam Martin, founder of the F5 project, a nonprofit that works to give fresh starts to people who have been incarcerated, told the committee he has wrestled with "the collateral damage of bail" in his own life.
That experience, he said, helped him see that incarceration sometimes results in societal harm, such as increased homelessness.
"Every crime I ever committed I was homeless," Martin said.
Dane DeKraye, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, said cash bail does not make communities safer.
"It depends entirely upon your pocketbook," DeKraye said.
"If you are poor but not dangerous, you cannot be released. But, if you are rich and dangerous you can be released. This makes no sense and it is the opposite of what you want as a community," DeKraye added.
Voices speaking in opposition to the bill included Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski and Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner.
Zibolski said the legislation, as written, would result in adverse public safety outcomes and eliminate an important "deterrent factor."
Jahner said at the start of the pandemic, a policy was instituted similar to what the legislation aims to do. Law enforcement officers began citing and releasing individuals who committed misdemeanors in their presence rather than taking those individuals to jail.
"It did not take long to realize that cite and release on a person's own recognizance was not working," Jahner said.
In July, the sheriff's office had about 620 warrants relating to court no-shows, compared to the typical monthly average of about 300 warrants, the sheriff added.
"We still have 3,200 outstanding misdemeanor warrants in Cass County," Jahner said.
"Ultimately, I have to look out for public safety and for our victims," Jahner said, adding: "If we can come up with a better solution to reintegrate people back into society successfully, I would love to work on that."
Mark Friese, a Fargo attorney who spoke at Monday's hearing in favor of the bill, said several factors likely play a role when it comes to why some defendants miss court hearings, with the pandemic and a general emphasis being placed on the importance of staying home being a major one.
The committee did not immediately take a vote Tuesday on whether it would recommend passage of the bill.