California Forum

California’s bail system needs reforming. Don’t let the bail industry win.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, talks with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, right, after the Senate approved his SB 10 to change the state’s bail and pretrial release policies. The measure would end money bail for most defendants, and now goes to the Assembly, which defeated a similar measure after protests from the bail industry.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, talks with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, right, after the Senate approved his SB 10 to change the state’s bail and pretrial release policies. The measure would end money bail for most defendants, and now goes to the Assembly, which defeated a similar measure after protests from the bail industry. AP

Two people. Both in a county jail. Both accused of a crime, but not yet convicted. Both deemed a low flight risk, unlikely to harm their communities.

Which should get to return home, rejoin their family, live a normal life while awaiting trial?

The answer is clear – they should be treated the same.

But when the state Assembly recently debated that question, 45 members gave a disturbing answer: Only the wealthy deserve “innocent until proven guilty.” The rest of us? Tough luck.

The winners in our current bail system, not surprisingly, are bondsmen, who profit from this temporary imprisonment of our fellow Californians. The biggest losers, sadly, are communities of color, who are more likely to live in poverty.

Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, would have made sweeping changes to California’s immoral bail system, changing a status quo that treats the wealthy like equals, and the rest of us like cattle.

Yet every Republican and 14 Democrats voted to continue a system that is unfair, expensive and hurts poor communities.

The foundation of our justice system is that we are all “innocent until proven guilty.” Yet our bail system allows the state to detain people who have not seen a day in court, who demonstrate good behavior, and whom a judge has deemed a low risk for flight or criminal behavior.

Currently, judges can set bail – a dollar amount that, when paid to the state, releases accused defendants from custody. Usually, defendants pay bail by hiring a bail bondsman, who puts up the money and charges the accused 10 percent of the total – money they never see again, even if they’re found not guilty.

AB 42 would have changed this, allowing accused, non-dangerous Californians to return to their families while awaiting judgment. A bail-free system like this has been tried in Washington, D.C., and the accused were no less likely to make their trial date.

“There is no evidence you need money to get people back in court,” D.C. Superior Court Judge William Morrison told the Washington Post.

But even if you never get near a police station, you’re still getting burned by California’s bail system. Why? Because detaining accused persons while they await trial is expensive – and that cost is passed on to all of us.

It costs state taxpayers between $100 and $120 per day to house someone in county jail. These are people who, as Washington D.C. has shown, will return for trial anyway.

California spends $1.8 billion to jail accused persons who have not yet gone to trial. Imagine how many ways that money could improve our state.

The winners in our current bail system, not surprisingly, are bondsmen, who profit from this temporary imprisonment of our fellow Californians. The biggest losers, sadly, are communities of color, who are more likely to live in poverty.

To an accused with deep pockets, a bail payment is an unfortunate but temporary speed bump. But to a Californian living paycheck-to-paycheck, a $5,000 bail payment (the state average) is a hole it might take years to climb out of.

This makes it all the more shocking that some Democrats who represent communities of color – such as Assemblymen Rudy Salas of Bakersfield and Joaquin Arambula of Fresno – failed to vote for a bill that would have helped their communities tremendously.

Luckily, all is not lost. The Senate passed an identical bill, Senate Bill 10, that the Assembly will have a chance to consider this summer.

If enough Californians make their voices heard, the Assembly will come to its senses.

AB 42 only lost by a few votes. Your voice could be the one that turns the tide against a system that enriches bondsmen, penalizes the accused and costs us all billions while yielding no gain in safety or justice.

Tim Molina is organizing director of Courage Campaign, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to economic justice. He can be reached at tim@couragecampaign.org.

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