Another viewpoint: Indiana’s proposed bail amendment bill merits serious deliberation


(Anderson) Herald Bulletin

Do we really need an amendment to the state constitution to ensure that people who represent a threat to public safety stay locked away in jail?

Sen. Eric Koch, a Republican from Bedford, believes the answer is yes. He’s the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 1, a measure designed to make it easier for judges to deny bail to suspects they believe pose a substantial risk to the public.

Proponents say the legislation would keep dangerous people off the streets, but critics say the measure’s subjectivity could endanger the rights of people who might indeed be innocent of the charges they face.

Under current Indiana law, only people accused of murder or treason can be denied bail, meaning judges have no choice but to set bail for those charged with any other crime.

“But if they set that bail too high, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that could be considered an unconstitutional, de facto denial of bail,” Koch told reporters.

His proposed amendment would allow judges to deny bail in cases where the suspect posed a threat to public safety.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle asked Koch how he could ensure the new law would be applied consistently.

“We’re relying on and trusting the good discretion of our trial court judges, who will make those decisions on a case-by-case basis,” he responded.

Critics, though, believe the change simply isn’t needed.

Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, worries that SJR 1 might lead judges to deny bail to people accused of low-level crimes.

“From my point of view, we already do a great job, in a negative way, of keeping people detained pretrial,” she told the Capital Chronicle.

“I think this language just gives comfort to what was already being done. And … it broadens the catchment of people who could be caught up.”

Civil liberties advocates will tell you the vast majority of inmates sitting in county jails are people waiting for their day in court. Bail advocates remind us that until convicted, these folks should be presumed innocent.

They might be mental health patients who should be getting help rather than languishing in jail.

Koch’s measure passed the Senate by a vote of 34-15, and it is now pending in the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code.

If it clears the committee and passes the full House, the measure is still a long way from becoming law.

A constitutional amendment must pass both houses of the General Assembly twice with an election in between. That means if the resolution passes this year or next, it would still need the approval of the lawmakers chosen in the election next fall.

Then, it would go on the ballot where voters would have to approve it in a referendum, likely in 2026.

That’s appropriate. Changing our state constitution is a significant step, especially when it applies to the rights of private citizens.

Such a change requires much thought and deliberation. It should never be taken lightly.