The nation's two top legal officers -- Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger -- called today for sweeping changes in bail laws to make sure accused criminals aren't freed from custody to commit other crimes while awaiting trial.
"Surely the protection of the public must always be a major factor in a decision to grant bail release," Burger told the American Bar Association here in his 10th annual State of the Judiciary address.
The speech at the ABA's midyear meeting renewed the old argument that judges are forced to put criminals back on the streets.
Burger said studies from the District of Columbia show 28 percent of persons arrested for serious crimes last year had been released from jail while awaiting trial for an earlier serious crime.
Earlier, Bell called bail laws "lax" and said on "Issues and Answers," (ABC, WJLA), "We ought to find out if the release will endanger the public" before letting accused criminals go free.
Both men attacked the 1966 Bail Reform Act, which affects federal courts across the country and all the courts in the District of Columbia. A federal law, it has been widely copied by the states.
Under the law, the only criterion a judge can use in freeing someone accused of a crime is whether he is likely to show up for trial. The likelihood of that person committing another crime while on bail cannot be considered by the judge.
The separate statements by Bell and Burger on the need to change the bail laws are likely to win support from law-and-order factions who have said for years that courts are freeing criminals to roam the streets.
"Law-abiding citizens must be forgiven if they ask whether the release pending trial sometimes poses an undue threat to the community," said Burger.
The chief justice said it has become increasingly common for a judge to try to clear a criminal calendar by dismissing pending cases when he sentences someone convicted. This leads many citizens to conclude "that habitual criminals can commit two or more crimes for the price of one," said Burger.
The chief justice voiced no recommendations on how bail laws should be changed. But Bell said the law should allow judges the discretion of keeping an accused criminal in jail if they think he will be a danger to a community.
We ought to find out if the release will endanger the public," said Bell. "If it would not, then we can safely let someone out without making him pay a fee. He could be released on his own recognizance.
This, the attorney general said, would keep money from being the sole criterion for getting out of jail -- a major reason for passing the Bail Reform Act more than 10 years ago.