Last fall, the Vanguard once again was ahead of the curve, hosting a discussion on bail reform. Phil Telfeyan discussed the lawsuit for bail reform filed in federal court by his group, Equal Justice Under the Law, which challenges the monied bail system.
In his talk, Phil Telfeyan discussed the plight of his client – a woman with no criminal record and responsible for the care of her 80-year-old grandmother. Because of the bail put on her, she would have had to come up with $15,000 in bail. She needed immediate release from custody, Mr. Telfeyan explained, and the bail bonds people allowed her to come up with just $1500 – but she would have to pay back the full $15,000 bail at the highest rate of interest allowed under the law.
Amazingly, the case against her was exceedingly weak and the San Francisco District Attorney’s office dropped the charges – but that did not end her bail obligations to pay back the debt. Now she and her family are having to pay $200 a month, for years.
An ACLU press release last week stated that, every year, California’s money bail system keeps thousands of people in jail before they get their day in court – all because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom. This costly, unfair, and ineffective system fuels poverty and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
We have a chance now to do something about this.
AB 42 (Bonta) and SB 10 (Hertzberg) are identical measures that will protect the well-being and safety of communities.
“We must stop linking wealth to liberty,” said Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), lead author of AB 42. “A person’s ability to post bail is not an indication of their guilt, innocence, danger to the public, or flight risk. It’s time to restore fairness and add greater public safety to our system by individually assessing the person’s ability to be safely released from custody pretrial. We must safely reform our money bail system now,” Assemblymember Bonta said.
Specifically, the bills will reduce the number of people locked up because they are unable to pay to get out of jail while their cases move forward. The bills also prioritize services to help people make their court appearances.
“I believe in the American justice system, and I believe the law should treat everyone the same,” said Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys). “The present money bail system lets the rich go free but forces the poor to stay in jail before a court determines guilt or innocence. That’s not right, and that’s not fair. It’s time to take money out of the bail equation and determine if people should be incarcerated pretrial based on the size of their risk, not the size of their wallet.”
Last week the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board came out with an editorial saying, “It’s time to do away with California’s cash bail system.”
The editorial argues that the state’s median bail is at $50,000 – which “is out of reach for most defendants, who tend to be poor or working class. Many find themselves with little choice but to stay locked up for weeks or even months, letting their lives unravel on the outside while the legal system runs its course. Others opt for plea deals to get out faster, accepting responsibility for crimes that they may not have committed, but can’t afford to fight.”
On the other hand, “Affluent defendants have no such problem buying their way to pretrial freedom.”
The Bee notes, under the proposal from Senator Hertzberg and Assemblymember Bonta, “people arrested for low-level crimes would be given an assessment to determine how likely they are to skip town or cause trouble if they were let go before trial. Having a steady job or a family would work in a defendant’s favor, for example.
“Based on recommendations from what would be a pretrial services agency in each county, the court would make the final decision in each case. Most often, defendants would be set free on their own recognizance. Others might be released with an ankle bracelet for remote monitoring or with orders to check in with law enforcement every so often.”
For more serious felons “the system would work much as it does now. Defendants would go before judges, who might set bail or order them to remain in custody until trial.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune argues, “Smart California bail reform is the just thing to do.”
They note, “Given that about 60 percent of people in California’s county jails are there because they can’t pay bail, the state’s policy appears hard to fathom. Its corollary effects — keeping suspects from working or going to class or taking care of their families and draining county budgets — are destructive.”
They add: “This is why it is welcome news that legislation is advancing in Sacramento that would adopt a Washington-style approach that emphasizes flight risk and concerns about public safety in deciding who is subject to pre-trial detention. Some law enforcement associations worry about this approach going too far, too fast. Some defenders of present state bail policies say critics ignore how much new crime some quickly released suspects would commit. They deserve a chance to make their case.
“But California’s bail policy must change — because our criminal justice system should be just.”
Watch Phil Telfeyan’s talk from last November:
—David M. Greenwald reporting