By Jeff Adachi and Naneen Karraker
You may think jail is a place for convicted criminals. You would be wrong. In San Francisco, 85 percent of the roughly 1,300 inmates in county jail haven’t been convicted of anything. That’s more than 1,000 men and women. They are there not because they have been found guilty but because they simply cannot afford bail.
Despite our progressive reputation, California uses an ineffective, costly and outdated system to determine who stays in jail and who is released.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Superior Court judges raised the standard bail amounts for numerous crimes. The bail for contempt of court, for instance, jumped from $10,000 to $20,000.
These higher bails ensure that a poor person charged with even a minor crime will remain in jail, which costs taxpayers $140 per day, while a wealthy person will be able to afford to get out regardless of the severity of his or her charges. Being in custody means an increased likelihood of conviction. It means wearing jail garb instead of a suit in front of the jury. It means accepting a plea bargain just to get out to save your job or care for your children.
The use of bail also exacerbates racial disparities in the system. A recent report released by San Francisco’s Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice cites a finding that the average bail for Latinos is more than $50,000, compared with $28,000 for whites. A recent study of 40 of the largest U.S. counties that found that, among those in jail because they could not afford bail, 27 percent were white, 36 percent African American and 44 percent Latino.
Non-monetary forms of pretrial release such as own-recognizance release or supervised pretrial release are underutilized in San Francisco because the Pretrial Diversion Project just doesn’t get enough support. With adequate funding, the program could hire the staff needed to make sure all people arrested are screened, their cases are presented to the court, and they are supervised to make sure they appear for hearings.
Non-monetary release isn’t simply fairer than the money bail system; it’s also more cost-effective.
Evaluations of pretrial services in five Northern California counties found that their return-to-court rates were higher than the national average for release on bail. San Francisco topped the list at a 97 percent return rate for non-monetary pretrial release as compared with an 82 percent return rate for those who put up bail.
While monetary bail is not going to vanish as a pretrial release option, we need to be smarter about it. Several states have passed laws shifting the pretrial release process from a cash-based one to a risk-based one. A Maryland law requiring courts to use a risk-assessment tool to determine pretrial release options resulted in a 3 to 4 percent increase in the number of people released in the first year. While not a huge increase, it is a step in the right direction. We could do the same in California right now.
Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender. Naneen Karraker is a member of San Francisco Taxpayers for Public Safety. She has worked for over 40 years on criminal justice matters locally, statewide and regionally, including pretrial release options, alternatives to incarceration and youth violence prevention.