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Tuesday, April 16
The Indiana Daily Student

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Monroe County prosecutor, NAACP partner to study racial disparities in bail setting

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Around 50 people poured over criminal case studies inside the Monroe County Public Library on Saturday afternoon. They were equipped with packets including three case studies, each complete with the police report, the criminal charges and the accused’s criminal history. Lively discussions ensued as the people decided whether they would hypothetically make the accused pay bail and, if so, how much.  

But these were not just case studies. These were real cases from the Monroe County Prosecutor's Office. 

“Of course we can sit here and theorize as much as we want, but these individuals are real,” Monroe County NAACP President Maquibé Reese said. “These are real people, and they matter. It’s important for us to continue to advocate in the community so we can address bail bond, so we can address transportation issues and poverty.”  

The Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office and the Monroe County NAACP partnered to invite community members to share their perspectives on the local criminal justice system during a “Community Conversations” event Saturday. 

The conversation, which centered around potential disparities within the bail system, was part of research for an IU study investigating racial discrepancies in prosecutorial decisions. The study specifically focuses on minor criminal cases such as traffic violations or misdemeanor crimes. 

Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization that invests in research of a variety of topics including criminal justice, funded the study after sending a call for research proposals to explore how prosecutor’s offices across the countries are trying to address racial biases.  

Monroe County Prosecutor Erika Oliphant agreed to participate in the study and spoke at the two-hour event Saturday. Oliphant explained how prosecutors influence bail decisions by deciding what charges the accused will face and making recommendations to judges, who ultimately set the bail.  

Under Indiana law, charged criminals must be offered some level of bail, whether it be a set amount of money or on their own recognizance. If released on their own recognizance, the accused does not need to pay money but promises to appear at future court dates. The only charges that are not eligible for bail are murder and treason. 

Oliphant said she took creating an equitable bail system seriously. She cited Monroe County’s pre-trial release program as one of the ways the county strives to maximize the number of people released without bail.  

“Unless someone poses a substantial risk of flight, meaning they aren’t going to appear for their court hearings and answer the charges, or they’re a danger to themselves or others, the presumption for all offenses except for murder and treason is release without posting money bail,” Oliphant said.  

After Oliphant, IU-Indianapolis professor and researcher Eric Grommon took the floor. He presented the community participants with three real-life case studies in which someone was arrested, and a judge needed to set their bail. Led by lawyers who volunteered their time, the community participants split into three small groups to discuss the case studies as if they were in the role of prosecutor. The group members decided if they would recommend the accused pay bail and, if so, how much.  

Grommon warned the participants their decisions have consequences. Setting bail requires balancing two extremes: the accused’s constitutional rights and public safety, Grommon said. For instance, setting an unattainably high bail could infringe on the accused’s right to be considered innocent until proven guilty and restrict them from freedom. On the other hand, prosecutors recommending bail amounts need to consider the risk that, if let out on bail, the accused could continue to harm their victims.  

“Together, your recommendations are going to be somewhere between these extremes of individual liberty and public safety,” Grommon said. 

Lively discussions in the small group included debate over whether bail should be scaled to be proportionate to the accused’s income, whether accused people are statistically likely to reoffend when out on bail, and if racial biases factor into bail decisions. At the end of the conversations, Oliphant revealed what bail amount was set for each of the people in the case studies. 

Many prominent community members attended the event, including Monroe County Sheriff Ruben Marté and Bloomington City Council President Isabel Piedmont-Smith. Marté addressed the room, sharing his experience as both a person of color  and a member of law enforcement. When he was a member of the Indiana State Police, he said he often acted as a mediator between minority communities and police.  

“I sit in a very, very unique position,” Marté said. “I am an African-Latino male raised in the South Bronx, so I understand the fear because I lived it. At the exact same time, I’ve also been an officer for over 30 years, so I understand the culture of the police.”  

Marté said open communication between police and the public can foster trust and collaboration, but those conversations need to happen before controversies occur, not in reaction to them. 

“I take great pride in being a part of this,” Marté said. “We are truly a service and that’s what we need to be doing — serving you by listening very carefully to what you suggest.” 

Piedmont-Smith attended as a long-time member of the Monroe County NAACP and said she wanted to show her support by attending the event and participating in the small group discussions.  

“Investigating how our criminal justice system works and doing everything we can to improve equity and outcomes is so important for our community and for all of Bloomington and Monroe County,” Piedmont-Smith said. 

Tri Keah Henry, IU criminal justice professor and one of the study’s leaders, said she hopes participants in the event understand how rare and important it is to have Oliphant wholeheartedly invested in participating in the research and addressing racial disparities.  

“I hope participants realize that they have a very engaged prosecutor,” Henry said. “Prosecutors are not always open to community events like this and so the fact that Prosecutor Oliphant was willing to come and be critiqued by community members on cases that her office is actually handling is a really big deal. So I hope they feel as if the prosecutor’s office is actually concerned about and is willing to address the issues that they are concerned about.” 

Henry said the high level of collaboration with elected officials, community members and local organizations like the Monroe County NAACP sets the study apart. 

“We include the community to better understand what issues they want us to address, what issues they want the prosecutor’s office to address to better inform what justice actually looks like for our community,” Henry said. 

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