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Bail decisions and St. Louis violent crime

In football, there are penalties for piling on. In the American criminal justice system, it's more often a matter of piling on the penalties.

Consider, for example, weapons charges in St. Louis. Since May of 2011, the courts have been following a policy that often sets bail at extremely high amounts. Indeed, it has sometimes been put as high as $30,000 for firearms offenses.

The high-cash bail policy was launched last year by a judge on the St. Louis Circuit Court. The goal was to combat violent crime by keeping suspects off the streets.

Many people have expressed concern, however, about constitutional problems with the policy. After all, judges are not supposed to legislate from the bench. Bail decisions are to be made on a case-by-case basis, with judges using discretion to weigh individual circumstances.

It is the role of the legislature, not judges, to establish the structure within which these individual decisions are made. And by legislative statute, the purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant appears in court - not to detain people preventively by setting unreasonably high bail amounts as a routine practice.

To be sure, public safety is one of the concerns to be weighed in case-by-case bail decisions. But that doesn't mean bail should $30,000 or some other high amount virtually every time.

So far this year, the amounts seem to be coming down. This could be due to normal rotation of judge on the court. Concerns about the policy itself, however, should not be overlooked.

These concerns do not only involve the proper role of judges in a government that respects the separation of powers. There is also the issue of overcrowding in jails that can come from an overly restrictive bail policy.

Source: "Debate over St. Louis gun crime bail flares anew," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jennifer Mann, 9-27-12

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