The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alexandria prosecutor moves to limit use of cash bail, part of national trend

(Dominic Bracco II/The Washington Post)

The commonwealth’s attorney for the city of Alexandria will no longer recommend that judges impose cash bail in misdemeanor cases, joining a national movement to keep lower-level defendants out of jail before trial.

Bryan Porter (D) said prosecutors in his office will instead suggest that people accused of misdemeanors be released on supervision. “In rare circumstances,” he said, if a person accused of a misdemeanor appears to be dangerous or a flight risk, they will recommend pretrial detention.

“An indigent citizen charged with trespassing should not languish in jail before trial because he cannot afford to pay a bondsman to post a $500 cash bond on his behalf,” Porter said in a statement.

Across the region and the country, state legislators and prosecutors’ offices have made similar policy changes in the face of bipartisan complaints that cash bond punishes the poor simply for lacking funds. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, two-thirds of people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said in October that the wide use of cash bail for nonviolent, low-risk defendants should be reconsidered.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) took a more modest tack last fall, saying her office would no longer ask for cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanors unrelated to drug dealing or drunken driving. Public defenders dismissed the change as ineffective, and her challenger in this year’s Democratic primary would end cash bail entirely. One judge in Fairfax County has unilaterally stopped demanding cash bail for defendants not deemed a danger to the public or a flight risk.

Attempts to eliminate cash bail have met with mixed success. In Maryland, after Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) deemed cash bail unconstitutional, the state court of appeals told judges to impose the “least onerous” release conditions unless someone is considered dangerous or a flight risk. In Prince George’s County, a study found that while more people were released without bond after the ruling, judges began holding more people with no bail. In California, activists turned against last year’s elimination of cash bail, fearing similar problems.

Porter said that a state report on the issue is set to be published this spring and that he will consider changes after reviewing it.