Politics & Government

Bail overhaul plan wins rousing backing from NAACP delegates

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a rally against the repeal or replacement of Obamacare, at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., earlier this month.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a rally against the repeal or replacement of Obamacare, at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., earlier this month. AP

Sen. Kamala Harris’ pitch to revamp the nation’s bail system so lower income people don’t get stuck in jail got a rousing reaction Monday at the NAACP’s annual convention.

But her effort faces tough opposition from law and order groups.

Harris, D-Calif., unveiled her bail overhaul plan last week, legislation she’s co-sponsoring with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Monday, she took her campaign to Baltimore, where the influential civil rights organization was an eager audience.

“In a system that is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail gets out for the same offense but the person who can’t pay to get out of jail sits in jail with all these other residual consequences?” Harris asked.

“That is wrong,” she told approving delegates.

The Harris-Paul plan would create a three-year $10 million grant for states to replace the practice of money bail. States would be able to apply for funds from the grant pool.

“I’m completely in agreement with (Harris’) position on this bail legislation,” George Mintz, president of the Greater Bridgeport, Conn., branch of the NAACP, said. “Too often, what happens is what she described, and that is wrong and it should change.”

New Jersey and the District of Columbia have already implemented policies to move away from bail. Instead, each has procedures to determine the likelihood of a defendant not appearing in court or endangering the community. Harris and Paul’s bill would encourage other states to replicate the model.

“To keep communities safe, we need to have a bail system that is focused on risk assessment, not on ability to pay,” Harris told McClatchy.

Bail industry groups have opposed efforts to change the system and argue that bail is the best way to get people to show up for trial.

“A broad stroke policy which allows the free release of millions of defendants puts law abiding citizens at great risk and does nothing to ensure the return of those defendants to court,” Beth Chapman, president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States and co-star of the A&E television show “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” said in an email.

That wasn’t the prevailing view in Baltimore. Victor Stephens, 61, attending the NAACP gathering from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, took issue with the bail industry’s profits.

“I think people will like the idea, except the ones who make money,” said Stephens, who heard about the Harris-Paul legislation for the first time Monday. “It’s all about making money on people’s misery, and bail money is misery for the people who are in jail.”

In California, the Senate passed changes in the state’s bail system but its companion measure failed in the state Assembly. Both bills faced stiff opposition from law enforcement groups and the bail industry.

“Releasing every non-capital defendant in the state, no matter how predatory, will cause irreparable harm to the public. Not only would this mass release almost certainly cause loss of life, but we could spend years and enormous resources chasing thousands of defendants now avoiding justice,” the California District Attorneys Association wrote in opposition to the Senate bill.

Also at issue was the high cost of establishing the pretrial services agencies that would be responsible for determining whether a defendant should be released before trial.

Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, said ending money bail would save money by letting low-risk defendant’s out of jail.

“If they’re awaiting trial and they don’t pose a risk, let’s not have the taxpayers foot the bill, especially when a similarly situated person is not in jail because they could write a check,” Harris told McClatchy.

Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu