Yale students gathered yesterday at the Afro-American Cultural Center for a panelist discussion titled “Bail/Bond and the Injustices of the Court System.” The discussion, which featured attorneys Glen Conway and Norm Pattis and community activist Sally Joughin, is the second installment of the New Haven Criminal Justice Discussion Series, for which Yale’s Students Legal Action Movement is serving as host.

During the hour-and-a-half-long discussion, the panelists shared some of their personal experiences in dealing with the bail/bond system’s problems. The discussion opened with an introduction by Conway to the bail/bond system.

Under the current system, a police officer sets bail for the arrestee. If the arrestee is not able to pay, a state bail commissioner is then allowed to set a new bail. If there is a disagreement between the officer who set the original bail and the bail commissioner, the matter is reviewed by a judge the next day. Based upon the nature of the arrest and the arrestee’s criminal history, the judge may choose to follow the bail commissioner’s recommendation or change the amount. If the arrestee cannot make bail, he must stay in prison until his next court date.

The problem with this system, the panelists agreed, is that excessively high bonds are being set for many arrestees who have committed relatively minor offenses. While awaiting trial, many defendants are coerced by prosecutors into accepting plea bargains rather than go to trial. Being incarcerated also makes it difficult for the defendant to prepare his case before the trial date and often makes a conviction more likely.

The intended purpose of the bail/bond system is to reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance in court. Under the current system, however, excessively high bonds are being set as punitive actions or as a means of extracting a plea from the defendant.

“It’s so beyond the purpose of what the bonds are supposed to be,” Conway said.

Conway added that the abuses in this system, although statewide, are particularly egregious in New Haven. Conway has filed numerous petitions for review which have effected only minor changes. Frustrated by these more procedural approaches, Conway has filed lawsuits against the city of New Haven, the chief of the New Haven Police Department, and the state prosecutor’s office. He is hopeful that the state Legislature will eliminate cash bonds, which cannot be paid by a bondsman and are nearly impossible for an ordinary defendant to meet.

Despite this anticipated success, Conway remains frustrated.

“If you ask me,” Conway said, “[the system is] degenerating. Our resources are stretched, and I am at a loss. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

Pattis followed Conway’s speech by encouraging the audience to take action. He urged the students in attendance to examine the problem from the ground level. He warned against the dangers of scholarly passivity and encouraged them to adopt a “Socratic presence,” questioning and challenging the system.

“You can become immobilized by your intellect,” Pattis said. “But what law is is action. — Revolutions have started in groups smaller than this.”

Sally Joughin, an activist at People Against Injustice, a New Haven group pushing for reforms in the bail/bond system, gave the final speech. Joughin said bail commissioners also share the panelists’ concerns. She urged students to listen to court cases and work in the offices of lawyers to better understand the problem.

During the question and answer period, Conway and Pattis further highlighted the system’s injustices by re-enacting a typical defendant’s journey from arrest to trial.

“It’s a factory down the street,” Conway said, “and the input is human beings. It’s a way to move people through the system.”