One lesson we can learn from the deadly Waffle House shooting

Truly honoring crime victims requires a serious analysis of how to prevent future tragedies.

On Monday, police arrested a man believed to be responsible for shooting and killing four people in a Nashville Waffle House. As the community grieves and information about the killer’s motives surface, we’re left with serious questions about the basic functions of our justice system.

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After receiving pressure from the community, a judge revoked the shooter’s $2 million dollar cash bail, which is good — clearly, the primary suspect in a mass shooting shouldn’t be free to walk among us. But it begs the question, “Why was someone accused of killing four people in a senseless rampage even considered for pretrial release?”

There are two sides to the cash bail problem coin. The first is that people who can’t afford bail end up sitting behind bars at the taxpayer’s expense for weeks, sometimes months, without being tried or convicted of a crime. According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, six out of ten jail inmates are awaiting trial. Detainment, especially for long periods, can ultimately change the outcome of cases as those who appear in court wearing an orange jump suit, unkempt and forlorn from being in jail, look guiltier to a jury than someone dressed in business casual.

The other side of this problem, which is flagrantly apparent in the Waffle House shooter case, is that cash bail allows defendants to purchase their freedom, regardless of the danger they pose to the community. Rather than letting a person’s wealth decide their pretrial status, judges should use risk assessment systems to determine someone’s likelihood of re-offending or skipping court. Collecting, organizing, and analyzing data on defendants’ employment, criminal history, pending charges, housing status, and other factors can help courts make swift decisions, improving efficiency and lowering jail populations and costs. In many cases, the court should recommend pretrial supervision services, which cost substantially less than detention and maintain a strong likelihood defendants will reappear for trial. Washington, D.C. doesn’t use money bail to detain people before trial, and defendants still appear in court a vast majority of the time.

The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world (the other is The Philippines) that allows a for-profit bail bond industry, which creates a financial incentive that objectively puts people in danger. The shooting in Tehama, California, last year is a perfect example. A known violent offender was let back on the streets to murder innocent people simply because he was able to afford bail. The bail bond industry lobbies to keep this machine in place, but the only interests it serves are its own.

Thankfully, the judge in the Waffle House case listened to the community and revoked bail. But it shouldn’t take a community uprising to prevent our justice system from releasing a mass murderer simply because he can buy his way out of trouble. That goes against everything this country stands for.

Ending the cash bail system nationwide and replacing it with sophisticated risk assessment practices is one very simple way the justice system can better prioritize our safety.

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LEAP speaker Jake Lilly is a former prosecutor from Parker, Colorado. He previously served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia and as an Assistant District Attorney in Savannah, Georgia, and Ft. Worth, Texas. He’s an expert in pre-trial detention and the cash bail system, as well as issues pertaining to criminal sentencing and incarceration, the for-profit prison industry, and diversion programs.

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