Exhibit A On Why It Is Crucial To Understand Moral Luck: The Samuel Lee Scott Affair

St. Louis Bail Project is under attack for bailing out Samuel Lee Scott, who was in jail pending domestic abuse charges and couldn’t pay the court-ordered bond. Once Scott was free, he went home and killed his wife.

The bail system, which is being re-examined across the country, obviously discriminates against the poor. The idea underlying bail is to get the accused out of jail before trial, since he or she is by definition not guilty, and to create  a financial incentive for the accused to appear for trial. The system penalizes poverty, so non-profits like  the St. Louis Bail Project use their resources to allow poor defendants to have the same options rich ones do. It is an ethical mission.

The fact that this one bailee committed murder is pure moral luck regarding the Bail Project. The Project does not second guess the judge’s decision to allow bail, or the system’s determination that Scott wasn’t a flight risk or a danger to the community. Indeed, there may have been no reason to expect that Scott would kill anyone. That he did was moral luck, and cannot be logically or fairly applied retroactively to the St. Louis Bail Project’s decision to pay his bail. The fact that bail was set indicates that the system did not regard him as a threat.

The episode could justifiably spark a debate regarding when and if domestic abusers should be provided with an opportunity to go home, and whether bail in such situations should include a requirement that they live apart and stay away from the alleged victim. What it should not do is cause organizations like the St. Louis Bail Project to doubt the importance of their mission.

9 thoughts on “Exhibit A On Why It Is Crucial To Understand Moral Luck: The Samuel Lee Scott Affair

  1. The fact that this one bailee committed murder is pure moral luck regarding the Bail Project.

    It is indeed, and pure bad moral luck at that.

    Why is nobody asking why the bail was set so low to begin with, or even allowed? If the criminal justice system, having arrested and incarcerated a person lack the evidence to demand no bail be issued because of a defendant’s danger to the public, how is the Bail Project, who’s objective is to prevent economic discrimination in the administration of justice — not pass judgment on the threat a person poses to the public — supposed to know?

    This is a tragedy that could not have rationally been avoided unless the authorities, or judge, ignored clear evidence of danger. This just proves, as if it needs to be proven, that you cannot protect yourself, or others, from all danger.

    Nobody can protect themselves from successfully hidden crazy. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Regan are all historical proof of that.

    • I have small issues with each of Lincoln, JFK and Regan but they didn’t hide any craz…. Never mind, a little slow today.

      Jack – it would seem that your post would be something nice to send to St. Louis Bail Project. But I wonder how it would react?

  2. They need restraining orders for people who are being charged with attacking someone. If they had restraining orders, there is no way he could have beaten her to death. That would have made it illegal. If it is illegal, the police stop people from doing it and everyone stays safe. That is why no one needs an AR-15 to defend themselves. That is why we need to ban guns to keep things like this from happening.
    Yes, I know he beat her to death. Why does that have anything to do with it?

  3. I do agree that bail is a failsafe for people with money. Then again, bailbondsmen exist precisely for those with limited resources.

    The problem with bail as I see it is the accusation for the bail is set. Would it be hard to decide that white-collar suspects, with passports revoked, get bail, while a violent suspect would be evaluated by a different set of deciding factors? A man beats his wife. Probably after years, she reports him, he is jailed. Then he’s out on bail, free to pay back the wife who reported him and put him in jail.

    I understand the concept of moral luck, but I disagree with you on this one. It was NOT moral luck that The St. Louis Bail Project bailed out the wrong guy. They should focus not only on the rich/poor question, but should vet the bailees in a much more serious way. So it wasn’t moral luck: it was bad work on the part of the St. Louis Bail Project. Violent suspects should and must be vetted more closely than others.

    Too many of these groups find the ideology more important than the facts, or have a different agenda than what they espouse. See the Evanston/Northwestern University IL crowd who freed a real murderer, just for the press they got.

  4. If the goal of imposing bail is to use a financial incentive to prevent bad behavior, I would argue that the St. Louis Project Bail Project people undermined the system’s ability to keep this dude in check and thereby endangered the person he murdered. It wasn’t Samuel Scott’s money that Samuel Scott burned when he murdered his wife. My thought here is that this is more of an exhibit on what happens when a group of people is ruled by emotion rather than a careful calculation of how their actions are going to incentivize or disincentivize behavior from others. We see this kind of careless thinking too much in our society: a boss who provides bonuses based on hours billed to clients and thereby instantly kills all efforts at internal non-billable innovation; Obamacare; taxing the rich to benefit the poor; subsidies for wind energy resulting in miles of ugly wind turbines that are neither green, cheap, or aesthetically pleasing to look at.

  5. Having a bit of criminal justice experience and believing strongly that bail reform is way past due, I must also acknowledge the necessity of making sure that violent offenders are not casually unleashed back into society due to no or low bail. “Moral luck” notwithstanding, I find I get “luckier” when I act intelligently vs. stupidly, and the same is true with the criminal justice system. Certainly in any population of violent offenders, some released without bond would not re-offend, but the “release calculation” must be weighted on the side of public safety. The need for bail reform is more pressing in the case of non-violent offenses, and the answer must include faster processing to the “probable cause” determination and non-jail alternatives for non-violent pre-trial defendants, so long as those alternatives provide real-time tracking and accountability for non-compliance. Alternatives are not cheap, but are still less expensive than keeping folks in jail.

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