To his credit, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is forcing a discussion about a fundamental issue of fairness: whether poor people who are arrested should remain behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.
Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights group in Washington, D.C., raised the issue last year by suing San Francisco on behalf of two low-wage earners who were arrested and held in jail because they could not afford bail. The case has statewide implications.
Herrera shook up the bail bonds industry earlier this week by announcing he wouldn’t defend California’s bail law. By requiring that people come up with money to gain their freedom, Herrera said, the law “creates a two-tiered system: one for those with money and another for those without.”
The case involves the period after an individual is arrested and held in jail on a predetermined bail amount, but before he or she appears before a judge who decides what the proper amount of bail should be to ensure the defendant will show up for court dates.
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Too often, people picked up for minor crimes lose their jobs or cannot care for young children because they spend days in jail. And sometimes, prosecutors drop charges early in the process, as happened with the plaintiffs in the San Francisco lawsuit.
Courts will decide the constitutionality of California’s bail law. But the Legislature needs to strike a better balance in ensuring that the justice system doesn’t discriminate against poor people while keeping truly dangerous people locked up.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, and Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, plan to propose bills when the Legislature convenes next month. Bail bonds agents won’t be pushovers. They have a significant lobby presence in the Capitol and are regular donors.
Harmeet Dhillon, who represents the California Bail Agents Association, a trade group for 3,300 bail agents. The association is asking U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers to intervene in the San Francisco suit to defend the law’s constitutionality.
In addition to contending that bail helps protect the public, Dhillon said the association ought to be allowed to intervene because it has a “concrete economic interest in protecting the livelihoods of its members.” No one should wish economic hardship on anyone. But we hope that courts would not conclude that bail bonds business’ viability outweighs basic fairness.
Money bail is supposed to ensure that people facing criminal charges show up for their court dates. It’s not supposed to strip poor people of their liberty.