Siegler Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security

On Thursday, November 14, 2019, Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security at a hearing on “The Administration of Bail by State and Federal Courts: A Call for Reform.” Professor Siegler and Erica Zunkel, Associate Clinical Professor of Law & Associate Director of the FCJC, provided a written witness statement with the following introduction:

There is widespread agreement that the cash bail system is broken, and there is a robust reform movement afoot at the state level to eliminate money bail. The federal pretrial detention system is in crisis, too, but its problems have been largely overlooked, even by federal legislators. The Bail Reform Act of 1984 (BRA or “the Act”) results in the pretrial detention of far too many people because it is overbroad, confusing, and targets low-risk defendants for detention. Legislative reform is needed to address this crisis.

In fall 2018, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic (FCJC) created a Federal Bail Reform Project that is having far-reaching local and national impact. FCJC Director Alison Siegler and Associate Director Erica Zunkel conceived of this project out of a concern that pretrial release and detention practices in federal court deviated from the legal requirements of the Bail Reform Act.

To delve deeper into the source of the problems, the FCJC designed what appears to be the first courtwatching project ever undertaken in federal court anywhere in the country. Volunteers observed 170 federal bail-related hearings in Chicago over the course of 10 weeks. The clinic watched both types of federal bail hearings: Initial Appearance hearings and Detention Hearings. The clinic gathered and logged detailed information about each hearing, including whether defendants were being illegally detained and whether the government was requesting detention for reasons not authorized anywhere in the statute. The clinic’s courtwatching revealed significant problems in the implementation of the Bail Reform Act in practice. In the wake of our courtwatching, we met with Federal Public Defenders around the country and learned that many of the problems we had observed in Chicago were happening elsewhere in the country. Although judges, prosecutors, and the defense bar are changing their approach to bail-related issues in response to our Federal Bail Reform Project, it is clear that changing the culture of federal bail is not enough; legislative reform is urgently needed.

The House Judiciary Committee has made both the written witness statement and the video of the Hearing available on its website.