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New bill could limit cash bail

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A new bill authored by state Sen. Karen Tallian would limit the use of cash bail in Indiana jails. Senate Bill 222 would prohibit anyone charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor from being held on bail. Those with a previous felony conviction or charged with driving under the influence would not be exempt from cash bail under this bill.

This isn’t the first legislative session Tallian, a Democrat, filed a bill on the issue of cash bail. This year, however, with ongoing conversations about criminal justice reform and racial equity, Tallian is hopeful the bill will pass.

“We’ve known that for years, our local jails are crowded with people, a majority of whom are there pre-trial,” Tallian said. “In other words, they haven’t gone for trial yet, they’re just held there because they haven’t been able to make bond.”

Tallian said of those individuals, most are charged with misdemeanor offenses and are predominately low-income and people of color.

Nationwide, 90% of Americans awaiting trial in jail cannot afford bail. According to the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation promoting health care and social justice reforms, the pre-trial population is disproportionally Black and Hispanic. Both demographics are more likely than white Americans to live below the poverty line.

Despite only making up 26.7% of the population in Marion County, 27% of Black Indianapolis residents live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress.

State Sen. Greg Taylor, senate minority leader and a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said SB 222 is a racial justice issue.

“I congratulate my colleague Sen. Tallian for continuing to advocate for criminal justice reform,” Taylor said in a statement. “Cash bail policies disproportionately disadvantage low-income and minority communities. … The bail system preys on people of color and perpetuates an unjust criminal justice system. … Senate Democrats released our 2021 legislative agenda where we highlighted our demand for equal treatment for all Hoosiers in the justice system. Sen. Tallian is fulfilling that promise with this bill.”

Ending cash bail is a demand from Indy10 Black Lives Matter to the city. On Twitter, Indy10 voiced their support for the bill, saying “Thank you [Sen. Tallian] for taking a bold first step in introducing Senate Bill 222.”

A representative of Indy10 could not be reached for comment.

Tallian said she’s heard from many people who support limiting cash bail. She said she’s gotten some pushback from judges, but the No. 1 group opposing the issue, she said, are prosecutors.

However, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears seems to be open to discussion.

“Whether or not someone should be held in custody should be a discussion about public and personal safety, not financial means,” Mears said in a statement.

Tallian is currently awaiting confirmation the bill will receive a hearing.

Along with limiting cash bail, Tallian hopes to legalize marijuana in the state through SB 223. Currently, someone caught with any amount of marijuana will net a possession charge in Indiana. Tallian’s bill would make it so anyone found with two ounces or less of marijuana or related paraphernalia — such as hash oil — would not be charged with possession. Further, in addition to making two ounces or less legal, the legislation would repeal the possession charge for any amount over two ounces. This means individuals found with more than two ounces of marijuana would not face a Level 6 felony and instead face a lesser charge.

The bill is aligned with recommendations from members of the IBLC, who in 2020 called for the decriminalization of marijuana as part of their justice reform policy agenda. During a press conference on Aug. 13, 2020, IBLC Chair Rep. Robin Shackleford said marijuana convictions are an example of how Indiana has “failed our youth.”

In 2019, Mears stopped prosecuting Marion County residents charged with possession if they were found with less than an ounce of marijuana. This was an effort to decrease the number of nonviolent offenders held in Marion County jails.

Nationwide, the Black community faces a higher risk of incarceration for marijuana possession. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black people are up to 10 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparable usage rates. A 2020 study by the ACLU found disproportionate rates of arrest in all 50 states.

If SB 233 passes, Indiana would join Michigan and Illinois in legalizing marijuana up to a certain amount. However, Tallian is aware the bill is a long shot. The sale of alcohol on Sundays was liquor in 2018.

“I’ve been filing marijuana bills for 10 years one way or another,” Tallian said. “Even when my bills don’t pass, they provide opportunities just like the one we’re doing right now to air the issue. Somebody needs to speak up on these issues, even if it takes the movement one inch at a time. … In Indiana, the discussion has moved very slowly.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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