California appears to be on the cusp of initiating a statewide reform of their bail laws. The state’s notoriously high rates for bail have put it first in the nation, with an average bail of almost $50,000 per person accused of a crime. Critics of the current system argue that the high costs are unjustified and essentially jail individuals because they are poor. The sky-high bail rates increase the populations of an already-overcrowded jail system at no small expense to taxpayers. According to a study by the UCLA School of Law, California jails 59% of all people accused of a crime in the state at a cost of roughly $204 per day. Nationwide, only 32% of individuals accused of crimes are held until their trial, and the average pretrial supervision program costs a mere $15.
The state’s ineffective bail system gained national attention this month when an elderly man in San Francisco was held on a $350,000 bail, despite being accused of minor crimes. The San Francisco resident, Kenneth Humphrey, was accused of stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne. In response, the police charged him with robbery and residential burglary because he allegedly stepped into his neighbor’s room to take the cologne and $5 bill. Unable to pay the $350,000 in bail, Humphrey spent 250 days awaiting trial in San Francisco County Jail.
After a panel of state appellate court judges ordered a new bail hearing in January, the judges did not mince words in their condemnation of Humphrey’s treatment. “A defendant should not be imprisoned solely due to poverty,” the Court said. Humphrey’s treatment was the “antithesis” of the Constitutional protections of liberty and due process. Advocates point out that when impoverished people are held for long periods of time awaiting trial, they not only lose their jobs, but they are also more likely to accept a plea deal – even when innocent – just to be released from jail. While a plea deal results in being released from jail, the person accused of the crime will likely no longer have his or her job. Even worse, with a criminal record, it will be more difficult to locate employment.
Before the court ruling, California followed a complex bail schedule and algorithmic risk schedules, described by the UCLA School of Law as “opaque.” According to the same study, the for-profit bail industry’s powerful lobbying arm is behind the high bail fees, high prison rates, and ultimately high spending on imprisoning people who are presumed innocent under the Constitution of the United States. Now, according to the judges, prosecutors and judges must take “ability to pay” into account when determining bail.
That argument resonated with California Attorney General Becerra, who said, “Bail decisions should be based on danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket.” The Attorney General joins a growing chorus of California politicians seeking to abolish “cash-only” bail; that list includes Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom, Sen. Kamala Harris, and California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakaueye. According to the three-judge panel in Humphrey’s case, legislation is desperately needed. Thankfully, California has drafted a bail reform bill already in SB 10. All they need to do is sign it. Continue reading