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Judge should explain shockingly low bail for suspect accused of dealing heroin

We’re not sure what Buffalo City Court Judge Betty Calvo-Torres is thinking in setting a joke bail for a suspect believed to be peddling death, but whatever it was, common sense played no role.

Dellsean Hamilton deals in heroin, police say. Not just heroin, but heroin laced with fentanyl, a deadly ingredient associated with an epidemic of overdoses. When he was arrested, he was in possession of 2,100 bags of opiates, $12,000 in cash and three guns, authorities say. And he was already out on bail after being arrested on a similar charge in March.

Calvo-Torres evidently took none of that into consideration when she set Hamilton’s bail last week at just $20,000. He was back on the street within a day. She wouldn’t even allow prosecutors to make a recommendation about bail. Why?

Of course, judges aren’t required to explain themselves to the public, or to the next mother whose child dies from contaminated drugs. Still, it would be interesting to understand the thought process that resulted in low bail for a serious, repeat felony charge.

At a hearing in the case Tuesday Calvo-Torres had a chance to make amends, but instead doubled down. She not only refused to increase bail, she scolded prosecutors for making the request.

Bail isn’t punishment. Its association with the crime alleged has to do with keeping the defendant from fleeing. Thus, the more serious the potential penalties, the greater the risk. It’s not the sole issue, but it’s an important one.

Is Hamilton a flight risk? It would seem plausible. Also relevant is the fact that the crime he is alleged to have committed is associated with a dramatic spike in overdose deaths in Western New York.

Calvo-Torres might have avoided some of the richly deserved criticism that has come her way if she at least had heard the recommendation that Assistant District Attorney Meredith M. Mohun would have made last week. Her boss, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita, believes that bail should have been in six figures.

“The judge said ‘You are not permitted to make a bail recommendation in my courtroom. That is my job,’ ” Sedita said, “It is outrageous and contrary to the provisions of criminal procedure law.” He said it was also the first time in his career of almost 27 years that a judge prohibited a prosecutor from even making a recommendation in a serious felony case.

It doesn’t mean she should defer to the District Attorney’s Office, but she should have allowed the prosecutor to make a recommendation, and perhaps not set bail guaranteed to free a defendant with Hamilton’s resume.