Sheriff Brian Asbell: Blame the system, not the bail funds


Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell discusses a voting kiosk installed in the county jail. Voting is just one way to help detainees remain involved in their communities, and that helps reduce recidivism. (FILE PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

There are more than 80 community bail funds nationwide. These funds were started with the goal of ending pre-trial incarceration of people who don’t have the money to post bail and must remain in custody. However, people with money can post bail and remain free.

But now critics of bail funds characterize them as band-aides helping some individuals while propping up an overall unfair system. Some communities have replaced money bail with algorithms for “risk assessment,” but those algorithms may have the same result of keeping poor defendants incarcerated while awaiting trial. And judges inevitably feel concern about releasing defendants who could go on to commit sensational crimes.

The solutions to ending mass incarceration are complex and long term. Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell shares his assessments.

What is your opinion on community bail funds?

I have a perspective which I am sure is different from most law enforcement administrators, and this can be attributed to the different roles I have worked in during my career. I have many years of experience in both policing and corrections, and even though these are both elements of the criminal justice system, each plays a different role and each can influence a perspective.

As a law enforcement officer, I have dealt with individuals I have arrested who post bail and are released from custody even before I completed my report of the incident. Then upon release, they immediately engage in an act of furtherance of the original crime or are involved in other behaviors which required police intervention and another subsequent arrest. This can be extremely frustrating for a police officer, but also think of it from the lens of a victim.

On the other hand, my years working as the jail administrator has provided a different perspective. In the corrections division, less is better. All operations and costs are dependent on the population of the facility, so the focus of this role primarily was centered around getting individuals out of custody.

In all honesty, as jail superintendent, my focus was financial –– lowering operating costs. However, during this job I recognized many system failures. This led me to further educate myself, research and –– most of all –– listen.

Today, I am often outspoken about the failures of the criminal justice system. I acknowledge the “system” is built from a flawed structure, which by design is a system of racial inequality which has and continues to produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the institution’s intentions.

So by acknowledging all of that, I have no issues with community bail funds. I would also argue many who are arrested have personal access to family wealth or means to credit which allows bail to be paid and this is not an option for many, especially those who live in poverty. Both are pre-trial, non-convicted, only charged with a crime and there still is the belief of innocence before proven guilty.

Is a community bail fund especially helpful during a pandemic?

It is imperative to keep the jail population down as low as we can. This is necessary to help manage the health pandemic in such a high-risk environment, but also due to the economic impact also brought forward by the novel coronavirus. Budget reduction has directly influenced staffing and other operations. However in saying this, I must acknowledge the work of our judicial partners –– States Attorney Jodi Hoos and Chief Judge Paul Gilfillan. Both have been intentional in keeping many pretrial defendants out of custody. Also both have assisted with holding off on sentencing convicted offenders, all in an effort to keep population as low as possible. So under this same theory, a community bail fund does assist with lowering the jail population, and helps operational objectives at this time, but the key to this conversation is this only holds true if the individual bailed out follows conditions of release and does not participate or become involved in continued (alleged) criminal behavior.

Do you believe you need more input into determining who is eligible for assistance from a community bail fund?

I don’t believe the sheriff should have any input on eligibility. A bond is set by a judge and any individual who has the ability to post by either a bail fund or traditional means should not be influenced by criminal justice stakeholders. However, I do believe there needs to be some sort of risk assessment done by the party who facilitates the bond. This should consider more than the criminal charge or potential danger to a victim, but also needs to know if there is housing, access to food and medical care. If the individual has addictions and is at risk of relapse or overdose. Basically, are the needs of the individual better met in the jail versus on the street. Unfortunately, this is the case for more than most realize.

There has been a backlash against community bail funds, but can they be a useful tool to reduce incarceration long term?

Revered French sociologist Emile Durkheim explains that we may have rules and laws, but we all come from different backgrounds and have different morals. Meaning, society and its rules will never comply; crime will always be in existence. However, in 2019 the demographics of the incarcerated population at the Peoria County Jail were 53.7% Black/African American, 44.3% white, while only 18.5% of the county is African American and 74% is white. Underlying causes for this disparity in incarceration rates may include neighborhood disinvestment and declining economic opportunities in the urban center such as high rates of teen births, sexually transmitted infections, lead poisoning, low birth weight, preterm births, violence and crime, incompletion of high school and poverty. These neighborhoods of inequity, analyzed by zip code, account for 62% of the Peoria County Jail’s incarcerated population. I believe this needs to be the conversation versus a community bail fund. The emphasis needs to be on crime prevention, and I truly believe this centers around education and economic opportunity for our community members who have fallen victim to continued denial of economic and housing opportunities. This needs to be the focus, and if you fix this, there would not be the need for a community bail fund. I do agree with Miss Durkheim’s statement that crime will always be in existence, but I also believe we can greatly influence the number of individuals involved in criminal behavior by creating a system of opportunity for all our community members. Opportunity brings responsibility and a feeling of self-worth. This is dignity, and at the end of the day I truly believe dignity is what everyone wants, and if we can achieve this, there will no longer be the need for this conversation related to community bail funds.

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