I have not been threatened with jail, nor have any of my family members. Nonetheless I am deeply passionate about reforming our bail system in California because it makes our communities safer, healthier, and stronger. And because my faith demands it.
Our current cash bail system unjustly imprisons tens of thousands of people before they are convicted of any crime simply because they cannot afford to pay to get out of jail. Money bail essentially punishes people for being poor, and then ensures they stay that way. It coerces people to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed just so they can leave jail sooner, and causes severe economic and social harm to needlessly jailed people and their families and communities.
Legislation introduced by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the Money Bail Reform Act (SB10), would replace the current cash bail system with a risk assessment system to determine how likely it is that people would fail to appear in court, or would commit other crimes if they were released before trial.
The court would still make the final decision in each case, and judges could still set bail or order people accused of serious or violent felonies to remain in custody until trial. But unlike the current system, the proposed reforms would ensure people accused of non-serious/non-violent crimes will be released from pretrial custody with appropriate conditions of release if needed. People accused of violent or serious felonies would not be released without a hearing, regardless of their wealth or access to money. This will help ensure California isn’t locking people up simply because they are unable to buy their freedom, while still prioritizing public safety and victim’s rights.
The money bail system is a primary contributor to mass incarceration, the pre-eminent form of institutionalized racism in our society. Racial disparity is a unique feature of the current system, which imprisons black and Latino men and women in much greater numbers than is justified. Mass incarceration is akin to slavery in its time, and an injustice that offends the moral and ethical values of our Judeo-Christian tradition. That tradition has much to say about freeing the captive and treating the poor fairly, about repairing the world and pursuing justice — that’s why Bend the Arc: Jewish Action is working with the NAACP, ACLU and other organizations to reform this practice.
On top of the moral values, reform would save our state significant money. Sixty-three percent of people in California’s jails are awaiting trial or sentencing. California taxpayers spend about $5 million per day to jail people who have not even received a sentence! Most of those people are there simply because they cannot afford bail.
The current system does not do a good job of promoting community health and safety. Right now, people who can pay bail are set free, no matter how serious the crime or how dangerous the person. For example, the gunman who recently went on a deadly shooting rampage in Tehama County had been out on bail after being charged with stabbing a neighbor. Meanwhile, people who are arrested for even minor infractions such as traffic violations can lose their jobs, homes, and cars because of an inability to pay bail. Their children often go without care or are lost to Child Protective Services.
Not surprisingly, bail bondsmen, their underwriters, and others who profit from the system have been waging a fierce resistance to these changes. The commercial bail industry is highly profitable, earning an estimated $2 billion per year. The median bail amount in California is $50,000; bail agents charge a fee of about 10 percent, may require unlimited amounts of collateral, and often impose burdensome and invasive check-in requirements as well as illegal fees and conditions. The fees are non-refundable, even if the charges are dropped or the individual is found innocent of any crime. The industry uses its massive profits to lobby elected officials regularly to ensure that bail and imprisonment remain the status quo.
Policy reform on bail is making headway across the nation. States as diverse as Alaska, Kentucky, New Jersey, Maryland and New Mexico have adopted methods that help determine whether an accused person will be a flight risk or pose a danger outside of jail. We can do this in California.
SB10 will come up for a vote in the Assembly this year. We must urge Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham to support this crucial legislation.
This is not a partisan issue. This legislation will provide huge savings for taxpayers, enhance public safety by enabling judges to make more informed decisions about whether or not a person is eligible for pretrial release, and prevent tens of thousands of people from going to jail unnecessarily for the simple “crime” of being poor. His support will reflect the values of compassion, humanity, and justice that we all share.
Barry Price is an activist and organizer for social, economic and environmental justice. He is co-chair of the San Luis Obispo chapter of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, a national organization dedicated to creating a more just and equal society.