Two killings, two very different cash bonds — and a debate about fairness in Wichita

Two arrests in Wichita highlight how bail can vary from one case to the next in Kansas. Some people are pushing for change.

by Trace Salzbrenner

Sedgwick County prosecutors charged 19-year-old Daryon Boone with first-degree murder in the September shooting death of a 69-year-old woman in Wichita.

They charged 16-year-old Makyh Townes with second-degree murder in what his family contends was the accidental shooting of a friend several months earlier.

Boone, who’s white, was released after posting a $500,000 bond. Townes, who’s Black, remains in adult detention after his bond was set at $2 million.

The contrast of the cases has renewed a racially charged debate about the fairness of bail practices in Kansas criminal cases, whether it protects the public by keeping people accused of violent crimes off the street or whether it’s more likely to irreparably harm Black defendants than white ones.

Differences exist between the two cases. For instance, Townes also faces other charges, and that increased the bail set by a judge.

But they’re similar enough — two Wichita shooting deaths — to draw public scrutiny over why the Black juvenile defendant faces bail four times higher than that of a young white man.

And that’s raised issues around trying to balance public safety and the desire to keep violent people off the street against the often-devastating consequences of locking someone up for months before a court has found them guilty of anything.

“You gotta weigh the public’s interest as well,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. “The public doesn’t want folks suspected of murder just running around on the streets to do it again.”

Townes’ mother, Shamika Jones, said she cannot afford to bail out her teenager even with the help of a bonding company.

“I think about it every day,” Jones said. “I just wish that things were different.” 

What is bail and what is a bond

Bail is guaranteed by the Kansas Constitution. It’s intended to give the court system leverage to make sure a defendant shows up for trial. Judges are supposed to weigh the severity of the charges against the likelihood somebody accused of a crime will flee.

The more serious the crime and the greater chance a defendant would skip a court date, in theory, the higher the bail. Show up for court, and you get the money back when the case is over.

But bail is commonly out of reach for criminal defendants, so bail bond companies step in. For a fee, they post bond for defendants. Then if the defendant doesn’t show up for court, they might lose the money they put down. It is then up to the bonding company to track down the defendant.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said bail amounts vary from county to county and from judge to judge. 

“The lack of, say, consistency,” Bennett said, “probably opens the system up to some questions, or certainly criticism.”

Is bail working?

A 2020 report commissioned by the Kansas Supreme Court found that pretrial detention can be a fast track to poverty. It can cost someone their job and their housing and send their finances into a downward spiral.

Jones said she worries about her son missing school and mental health care after his friend’s death. Even if Townes is acquitted, she said, the 16-year-old’s time in an adult jail could have lifelong aftereffects.

“My son’s friend was really close to us,” Jones said. “I feel for his family that they have to go through this. They lost a child. And I feel like I’m slowly losing mine to the system.”

And because Black people get arrested at higher rates than white people, they more often suffer the consequences of facing bail they can’t afford.

The 2020 report cites data from the U.S. Department of Justice that says 34% of people arrested nationally are held in jail because they cannot afford bail. 

Rising bail bonds and jail populations in Wichita

“In the late ‘90’s, when I came to work here,” Bennett said, “$50,000 (bail) was not an uncommon amount for a homicide charge.”

But a shift started to happen in the early 2000s in the county after Oscar Torres fled to Mexico when he was released from pretrial detention. His bond was set at $50,000 on charges of murdering an 8-year-old boy. 

Police found Torres in 2005 after he was featured on the television program “America’s Most Wanted.” 

Aaron Breitenbach, a deputy district attorney, said that case had an effect on judges. 

Bennett and Breitenbach said that $100,000 became the starting point for bail for serious crimes shortly after the Torres case. They commonly run higher. 

As bonds rose, jails became more crowded with people waiting to go on trial. A 2022 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that nationally “between 1970 and 2015, there was a 433% increase in the number of individuals who have been detained pre-trial.”

The 2020 Kansas Supreme Court report also showed that jail populations in Kansas are ballooning, in part, because of defendants awaiting trial. In Sedgwick County, the jail population has doubled since 1995. The population steadily rose until hitting its highest peak in 2009. It has since stayed around the maximum capacity for the jail at 1,406. Some inmates are held outside of the county but are still counted in population records.

Balancing public safety with human rights

Easter said too many people get locked up, and he’s advocated for alternatives to jail

“There are people in (the Sedgwick County Jail) who can’t pay a $500 or $1,000 bond,” the sheriff said. 

But Easter also said it’s too easy to post bail through a bonding company for serious crimes. 

After Boone’s release, Easter and Wichita Police Chief Joe Sullivan told KWCH they were discussing support for legislation that would increase down payments defendants pay to bond companies. 

“We have a couple of bonding companies that have decided we’ll start doing 1% bonds,” Easter said.  “(That) means on a $500,000 bond folks only have to post $5,000. … There has to be a happy medium.” 

Breitenbach said that some Kansas counties like Montgomery County have imposed local rules to help regulate bonds, but he said Sedgwick County does not have the manpower to do something like that. 

Angel Martinez, a co-owner of Wichita Bonding Co., said that his company protects people who’d otherwise get jailed before any conviction.

“We believe in innocence until proven guilty,” Martinez said on a panel in September organized to discuss the effects of bail on Black people in Wichita. “That is what should be guaranteed to everyone.”

Black people are more likely to land in court

The NAACP says on its website that “84% of Black adults say white people are treated better than Black people by police.” 

Easter disagrees. 

“I hear the same thing that we have more African Americans in jail, and it’s, you know, racial profiling and all that type of stuff,” he said. “I disagree with that assessment, that it’s just targeting Black people.” 

Yet the sheriff also said that 52% of defendants held in the Sedgwick County jail on murder charges are Black. Many of them can’t afford their bail.

“So we as a community,” Easter said, “and in the African American community, we need to get together and figure out what the problem is.”

Black people in Wichita have been meeting to talk about complaints with the criminal justice system. Martinez’s comments came at one of the public forums. 

A report by The National Registry of Exonerations found that Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder. The group also found that 49% of all people known to have been wrongfully convicted since 1989 were Black. 

Juveniles are also more likely to be tried as adults if they’re Black than if they’re white. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says 43.7% of juveniles charged as adults are Black even though they make up only 14% of juvenile defendants. 

Reforming the bail bonds system in Wichita

The Kansas task force report calls for standardizing bail and ending it for misdemeanors and low-level felonies. It suggests that, rather than setting bond, judges issue notices to appear in court that would only put people in jail when they miss their court dates.

Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said that the county is already releasing people with notices to appear for court and seeing the same success rate as bail in getting people to show up for their court dates. About 4 in 5 people show up for court whether they’re free on bond or receive a notice to appear.

The report to the state supreme court called for keeping the bail system in place, with changes: better training for court workers that reminds them about the presumption of innocence; better calculating a defendant’s finances in setting bail; and amending the Kansas Constitution to give judges more power to hold someone accused of a capital offense in pretrial detention without bail if they pose a significant risk to the public.

A law in Kansas already says people who can’t afford bail have a right to appeal for their release before trial. The report said strengthening the enforcement of that law could help.  

Some cities and counties, like New York and Multnomah County, Oregon, have started sending text messages to defendants reminding them of court dates, as a replacement for traditional cash bail programs. Multnomah County saved more than $1 million over eight months. Both saw more people showing up on their court dates as a result.

In September, Illinois became the first state to ditch the cash bail system. Now a judge will only hold someone in jail before trial if they pose a flight or safety risk.

In Kansas, efforts to retool the bail system haven’t gained traction in the Legislature.

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.