His face pale and marred by a ghastly scar above his eye, Sen. John McCain returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and sputtered what many Americans have been thinking for years.
“We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues,” the Arizona Republican barked at his colleagues, “because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”
It seems there is at least one glimmer of hope, though. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrat from California, and Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, are working in a decidedly bipartisan fashion to implement bail reform.
The unlikely duo made a show of introducing their Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act this month and have been making the rounds on TV networks to sell it.
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Not that it should need much selling.
In California, tens of thousands of people sit in county jails every day – not because of a criminal conviction, but because they can’t afford to leave. At $50,000, the state’s median bail amount is out of reach for most defendants, who tend to be poor or working class and black or brown.
“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.
While people cool their heels behind bars waiting for trial, usually for weeks, but sometimes months or years, defendants often lose their jobs and sometimes their families, putting a outsized burden on the nation’s social safety net.
It’s a travesty that gets repeated day in and day out, all over the country – except in states, such as New Jersey, that have enacted their own reforms. Other states need a nudge, though.
In California, legislation that would have largely eliminated the use of cash bail, instead releasing people based on the risk they pose to the public, failed in the Assembly this year. A companion bill, Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, lives on, though it faces opposition from law enforcement groups and the bail industry.
The Judicial Council of California also raises concerns. The policymaking body of the California courts, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a bail skeptic, released a six-page letter this month expressing “conceptual agreement” with Hertzberg’s bill, but objections to specific sections that would limit judicial discretion. Legislators should heed the judges’ advice.
But one of the Judicial Council’s concerns, the cost of establishing the pretrial services agencies that would be responsible for determining whether a defendant should be released before trial, could be address partially with the legislation being pushed in Congress.
Harris and Paul want to create a three-year, $10 million grant program that would for pay for states to come up with ways to replace money bail. States would apply to the U.S. Department of Justice and be required to report their progress to make sure their reforms are not discriminatory.
The idea is to encourage, not require, states to replace their bail systems – and do it in a way that works locally.
That’s a method Republicans should be able to back, and a goal that Democrats should love. Indeed, Harris got rave reviews after a speech on the legislation at the NAACP’s annual convention in Baltimore on Monday.
Reforming the nation’s highly unfair bail system is a smart move politically for Harris and Paul. The rest of Congress should join the effort, as should the Legislature.