Lois Ahrens: It's folly to build Northampton jail space with bail reform pending

Published: 3/7/2016 1:31:47 PM

The state is throwing good money after bad when it comes to investing our tax dollars on refurbishing the moldy modular building at the Hampshire County jail. The solution I propose is not to replace the modular structure with a more than $10 million dollar building, but for the Legislature to pass bail reform.

As of Feb. 15, there were 143 men sentenced to the House of Correction in Northampton. Eighty-four men are being held pre-trial, meaning they have been convicted of nothing. According to a 2015 MassINC study, “Between 2008 and 2013, the number of arrests in Massachusetts fell by 10 percent and in contrast the state’s pretrial population rose by nearly 13 percent.”

Throughout the country, the inability of people without financial means to make bail (even $300), is the principle driver for the construction of new jails.

Other states are turning the tide by passing bail reform legislation.

A September 2015, MassINC study reports, “Research has shown that many defendants held in jail awaiting trial do not pose a serious risk. Keeping low-risk defendants out of jail allows states to save money and redirect resources toward more effective uses, like providing treatment and community supervision.”

Even a short stay in jail can result in losing a job and housing and possibly even risk losing custody of a child.

An unfair money-based system also contributes to unjust outcomes. Women and men held pretrial are more likely to be convicted of a felony, receive a sentence of incarceration and be sentenced longer than those released pretrial.

In 2014, I joined with others across the state to write and advocate for legislation to eliminate money bail (House 1584 and Senate 802). Unfortunately, despite broad support for the bill, bail reform will not be taken up in this session; however, I believe in will pass in the next session.

For now, let’s put a moratorium on new jail building until bail reform is passed. Only then can we have an informed discussion about what kind of jail Hampshire County really needs.

Lois Ahrens is founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization based in Northampton.

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