The District government agency that recommends whether persons charged with crimes should be free or in jail pending trial will start urging next month that significantly more people be released without bond.
The D.C. Pretrial Services Agency is making the major policy shift because of its view that the city's liberal bail reform laws are being circumvented on a regular basis. Judges, prosecutors -- and the pretrial agency itself -- continually use money bonds to hold defendants in jail in direct violation of the spirit of the bail reform law, according to agency director Bruce D. Beaudin.
"We've contributed to the failure to apply the law," Beaudin said in an interview yesterday. "Our role has been one of a Pilate, washing our hands, while the statute has not been applied."
As many as 200 defendants at any given time are in D.C. jail pending trial solely because of their inability to post money bonds, according to knowledgeable sources. Many of those are charged with misdemeanor offenses, according to Beaudin's agency.
In theory, money bonds are set when there is fear that defendants might flee before trial. But in practice, Beaudin claims, the money bonds are used to jail defendants who prosecutors perceive as being dangerous to the community.
It is easier for the prosecutors to convince judges to set money bonds than to obtain formal preventive detention orders through the city's controversial preventive detention law, he said.
The new enforcement policy is aimed at eliminating the use of money bonds altogether here as a vehicle for keeping defendants in jail, Beaudin said.
It also would force prosecutors were frequently to use the controversial preventive detention process, which the bail reform act stipulates as the formal procedure for holding certain defendants without bond because of their danger to the community.
U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff said he "understands Mr. Beaudin's concerns," but any increase in the number of preventive detention hearings would pose staffing and logistics problems for his Superior Court section, which already has a heavy workload, Ruff said.
The preventive detention statute, passed in 1971 despite strong opposition from civil libertarians who claimed it was unconstitutional, was invoked rarely by prosecutors until the late 1970s. Over the last 18 months, however, it has been used with increasing frequency -- but still only a total of 54 times since August 1976 -- and as a result is being challenged anew in the courts.
Prosecutors say candidly that they rarely use the process because, among other things, it requires them to lay out much of their evidence against the defendant at an early, pre-trial phase of the case, during the preventive detention hearings. It also requires them to bring the defendant to trial within 60 days, and sometimes they would prefer more time.
Prosecutors said yesterday they had serious reservations about the capability of their office and the D.C. Superior Court to handle the increased preventive detention hearings that Beaudin's office could recommend under the plan.
The pretrial services office handled 12,577 cases last year in D.C. Superior Court, and recommended release of the defendants in 52 percent of those cases. The judges followed their recommendation in 85 percent of those cases.
In another 4,638 cases, however, Beaudin's office made no recommendation and judges set money bond in 55 percent of those cases. Under the new policy, Beaudin's office would begin making recommendations in those cases as well. Sources familiar with the process said as many as half of those types of cases could result in recommendations of preventive detention hearings.
Beaudin said his agency had decided to reconsider its application of bail laws after new internal studies that "discovered quite a few people were detained who probably shouldn't have been, and many were released who probably might not have been had our recommendation policies been more in tune' with the law."
He said the law requires that all criminal defendants here be released on the least restrictive conditions, unless they have to be detained to protect community safety. The only way to determine that under the law, he said, is to hold a hearing.
"The hyprocrisy of the current system is responsible for the unprincipled detention of thousands of suspecis," Beaudin has said.
If no bearing is held after his office recommends one, he said, "the pre-trial services agency can only proceed as though there has been an implicit concession that no serious threat of pretrial crime or threat to personal safety exists sufficient to justify detention." The agency then will recommend other conditions of release short of a money bond.
Statistics show that 15 percent of the persons charged with felonies here last year were free pending trial for another charge when they were rearrested, Beaudin said. But there is no detailed scientific study that shows how many persons out on bond are ever convinced of those subsequent offenses.