January 23, 2024

This editorial was originally published by the Wichita Eagle on December 23, 2023.

In 2017, Ricky Wirths walked into the offices leased by the Kansas Department of Revenue at a local strip mall, asked for the tax agent who’d recently seized his property, and open fired on the entire office, shooting the tax agent five times.

He then told an acquaintance that he’d “just killed a guy,” although he would prove to be incorrect — the victim miraculously survived.

Once apprehended, Wirths faced a $250,000 bail bond, which was later increased to $500,000.

This meant that after attempting to kill a state official, on state property, Wirths could post bail, go home, hire a lawyer, and begin building a defense for the attempted murder charges he was facing.

But recently, Sedgwick County prosecutors charged 16-year-old Makyh Townes with second-degree murder in what a friend termed an accidental shooting.

The 16-year-old had his bond set at $2 million and he’s sitting in an adult jail.

Wirths is white. Townes is Black.

The challenge here hinges not on the crimes (in this case, both are violent crimes), but on the capriciousness of the bond system as a whole.

The ACLU of Kansas believes the state could address these socially destabilizing and anti-democratic disparities by eliminating cash bail for non-violent offenses. Pretrial incarceration caused by unaffordable bail remains one of the greatest drivers of convictions and it exacerbates already ballooning jail and prison populations. In 2020, roughly 630,000 people were locked up in local jails. Most of them had not been convicted of a crime.

After an arrest — wrongful or not — a person’s ability to leave jail and return home to fight the charges typically depends on their access to money. On any given day, 5,000 people sit in Kansas jails not because they are guilty, but only because they can’t afford bail.

That’s because, in virtually all jurisdictions, courts require people pay cash bail to secure their freedom. Originally, bail was designed to compel people to return to court to face charges, but now we know that simple solutions like court reminders can achieve that purpose.

Townes’ mother said in a Wichita Beacon article that she worries about her 16-year-old son. He’s sitting in an adult jail, missing lots of school, and mourning his friend’s death. Even if acquitted, he’ll deal with this trauma perhaps for the rest of his life.

All because they didn’t have money for bail.

Poorer Americans and people of color often can’t afford to come up with money for bail, leaving them sitting in jail awaiting trial, sometimes for months or even years.

For those that do try to pay, bail amounts can be a significant hardship. They won’t ever get the money back regardless of the outcome of the case — even if the arrest was a case of mistaken identity and no charges were ever filed.

Across the country, bail reform has taken root and even gained support from within law enforcement and among judges and prosecutors. Judicial decision-makers who influence bond amounts have the ability and the power to correct our two-tier system of justice.

And according to survey research this year, 69% of Kansas voters support reforming cash bail to create a path for most people to go home the same day they’re arrested if they don’t pose a flight risk or a threat to others.

Kansans clearly believe release decision should be based on individual circumstances — not how much money someone has.