Money Bail: Freedom and Justice Out of Reach for Far Too Many Californians

BailBy Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Today, Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) announced plans to champion legislation to reform California’s seriously unjust and ineffective money bail system. What’s wrong with the current system you might ask?

While many people’s understanding of how money bail works might be limited to what they’ve seen on Law and Order, money bail is actually one of the biggest problems plaguing our justice system.

Every year in California, thousands and thousands of people are jailed while they await their trial simply because they can’t afford to post bail. In a state where the median bail amount is $50,000, it’s no surprise that many people simply can’t afford to buy their freedom in this broken system.

When someone is unable to pay the total bail amount up front, they have to make an impossible choice: sit in jail while their case moves forward, plead guilty, or pay a bail bonds company a nonrefundable fee to get out – all this even if they are innocent.

Yet even going to a bail bonds company is out of reach for many.

Bail bonds companies, for-profit entities backed by insurance companies, typically charge a nonrefundable 10 percent fee. Remembering that the median bail amount in California is $50,000, would you or your family be able to come up with $5,000 to pay the 10 percent nonrefundable fee to a bail bonds company? If you answered “no” to that question, you’re not alone: a recent survey by the U.S. Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans could not afford a $400 emergency expense.

You might be able to negotiate to pay the nonrefundable fee in installments, but remember that the fee you pay a bail bonds company is nonrefundable, which is different from paying the bail amount to a court in full. (Courts give you back your money if you show up to court.) That means that people often end up having to continue paying a bail bonds company even after they are found to be innocent or the charges against them are dropped. But we’re not talking pocket change here and these nonrefundable fees force families already struggling to make ends meet to accrue insurmountable debt.

As a result, many people of very low income are forced to sit in jail while they wait for their trial. Aside from unnecessarily tearing people from their jobs, families and communities, keeping someone in jail before their trial also increases the chances that that person – even one who is innocent – will end up pleading guilty, being convicted, and receiving a longer sentence than if they had been released while their case worked its way through the courts.

This is especially the case for people of color.

People of color are already over-policed, and arrested and detained more often than their white counterparts. Money bail only intensifies this existing race and class discrimination in the justice system. Because people of color are often over-charged with crimes that carry heavier sentences, they also face higher bail amounts. As compared to white men, the bail amounts for African American men are 35 percent higher. Similarly, bail amounts for Latino men are also 19 percent higher than the amounts for white men.

Recent research also found that, compared to people who are released sometime before their trail starts, people held in jail the whole time before their trial were four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and three times more likely to be sentenced to prison.

When people are jailed before trial, they aren’t able to meet with their lawyers regularly or find witnesses to help build up a good defense in their case.

Simply put, money bail adds insult to an already injurious justice system in which being low-income or a person of color puts you at a disadvantage from the start. What’s worse is that we also know that money bail isn’t really an effective means of making sure people show up to court.

Bail bonds companies would have you believe that decreasing the use of money bail will lead to a total breakdown of our justice system – people not showing up to court and havoc all over our streets. But that’s simply not the case.

In Washington, DC, where they have significantly reduced their use of money bail, 88 percent of the people released before trial made all scheduled court appearances and weren’t re-arrested. A non-profit program in New York City posted bail for low-income defendants, with 96 percent of the people they bailed out showing up to court. In more than half of the cases, charges were dropped. Conversely, people held on similar charges who were not bailed out plead guilty 92 percent of the time.

In too many ways, the odds are stacked against people with very low incomes. Our most fundamental of rights, our freedom, is not something to be cavalierly taken away from people simply because they are unable to pay for it. This is an unacceptable status quo. We must put an end to this injustice.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is the Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director for the ACLU of California.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. quielo

    “the median bail amount in California is $50,000”. This is a figure I find not believable. This figure is widely quoted but never with any attribution to how it was derived. I saw some data from Brian A. Reaves, Ph.D., Bureau of Justice Statistics. Which indicated that the $50K number may have come from felony defendants in selected urban counties however this number if highly skewed by certain homicide cases as none of the other felony categories do not reach that high. And again this is not all homicide cases in CA, just those in “Selected Counties”.

    Until I see some actual data that supports this article I will presume it is a lie and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is a liar.

    1. South of Davis

      quielo wrote:

      > This is a figure I find not believable.

      It just depends on how they define “median”.  Let’s say 5 guys are arrested in town for felonies and one has no bail since he stabbed his neighbors.  Another guy has a no bail for shooting at a politician,  a third has $50K bail for an alleged rape and the last two get released on OR for lesser crimes the “median” bail (out of the five arrests) is $50K (and the “average” bail is $30K).  There is no way that the median bail for all arrests in CA is $50K (with DUI, Drunk in Public and Probation violations the most common arrest in so many areas)…

  2. quielo

    Median is well defined. But we agree, there is no possible way that half of people with bail set have amounts over  $50K. Even if you looked at felony’s only you would still not get there and the above statement is for all defendants.

  3. Sam

    Here is a link to a paper that shows in 2012 the average bail for a felony was $32,000 in California.
    It shows how they came up with the number by weighting the suggested bail schedule by the number of felony charges.
    If the bail is currently too high, then what should suspected criminals have to pay in order to be released before trial?
    If you are accused of child abuse and the child dies it is $1,000,000. If you are accused of beating up your spouse it is currently $25,000. If you punch someone at a bar it is $5,000. Should we just drop bail to $400 for all crimes so that at least half of the people arrested will be able to post bail?

    1. David Greenwald

      The suggestion for bail reform would simply eliminate bail. If people are dangerous, bail doesn’t protect the public. Keep them in custody. For most people, some form of OR or Supervised OR is sufficient.

        1. David Greenwald

          No. I think For more serious violent crimes the defendant is best to either be on house arrest (where they can work but are otherwise on ankle monitor) or held in-custody.

      1. quielo

        I believe the current bail situation is unreasonable. I am concerned that the idiots in the legislature will create some new system where they have no idea what the results will be. I would support an incremental and/or pilot program to see what the effects are before jumping in.

    2. quielo

      Thanks Sam,


      It shows figures from ” some of the most frequently committed felony offenses” which is not all felonies and certainly not all arrests.


      The author is a liar and it’s egregious in this case as it is a written article where she had time to check her facts before publishing.

  4. Sam

    “No. I think For more serious violent crimes the defendant is best to either be on house arrest (where they can work but are otherwise on ankle monitor) or held in-custody.”

    Wouldn’t that include most all felonies then and your suggestion pertains to misdemeanors? If that is the case the author does a disservice by quoting an inflated bail of $50,000 for felonies and then suggesting a change to bail required for misdemeanors.

      1. Jerry Waszczuk


        This is my understanding that the bail is not the right of the accused, but the discretion of the judge   I  don’t see any possibility  that the notorious law offenders or violent criminals would benefit  from lowering  the bail limit . It for sure benefit a  lot of  people who got themselves in the legal trouble for the  first time because of stupidity or to  be present in the wrong place at the wrong time or just being falsely accused etc.

        1. Jerry Waszczuk


          Does it  means that the rich folks  who committed a serious crime can’t walk away from  jail  for the time until case would be resolved  by the court and jury . Am I  right or wrong  ?  I am talking about $ 500,000 or  1,000,000 dollars bail bonds etc.At this I see this very complicated .

          As a an  example I would mention the Senator Leland Yee’s case which I studied for quite some time.  Yee was  accused of conspiring with Keith Jackson to accept payoffs from undercover agents in exchange for political favors and an agreement to import illegal firearms.He was  free on a $500,000 bond.

          Leland Yee was out  of jail  from April 2014 to March 2016 . How it would work for him if  bail bond  system was eliminated prior his arrest ? He secured his bond by his home . Any clue or guess?


  5. Sam

    because most dirt bags who get arrested for beating their wife up after being convicted of domestic violence don’t have $5,000 or enough credit so they stay in jail.

    1. quielo

      I don’t understand why the ACLU would hire someone so clueless. Nobody who has any experience with the justice system in California would believe what she wrote and the amount is somewhat irrelevant.

        1. quielo

          Where is the substantiation for the PPIC $50K number? Just because one pressure group cites another groups unsubstantiated number does not make it accurate. Sam above links to a different PPIC report that shows “average bail for a felony was $32,000”. BTW that is a guess based on looking at bail schedules not an actual figure that was assessed. According to the CA AG office there were 442,741 felony arrests and 750,985 misdemeanor arrests in 2013.

          So how did they go from $32K for some felonies to $50K for all inmates? If I had to guess I would put the statewide “median bail amount” at $900.00. That means half of arrestees, where bail was assessed, had a bail of $900 or less. Now $900 is still a lot of money if you don’t have it.

          The most common offense was DUI at 157,369 arrests. According to a big DUI site the average bail for DUI is $500. So if you start with 157,369 @$500 you have a very steep hill to get to $50K.

          1. David Greenwald

            The $50,000 mark is linked, hit the link and you will find a footnote and hit that and you can see how the figure was derived. That figure refers to felonies.

            Most DUIs are misdemeanors. Felonies occur when there are injuries or the fourth offense.

        2. South of Davis

          David wrote:

          > That figure refers to felonies.

          Then why did she write:

          “In a state where the median bail amount is $50,000”

          If I were to write:

          “In a state where the median salary is over $2 million”

          and only mentioned that I was referring to  NBA players in the state in a footnote pretty much everyone would think I was “clueless” (at best)…

        3. Sam

          David- There is no footnote in the article that the $50,000 is linked to. Instead it has the same misleading statement and again omits that the number associated only with felonies.

          I don’t think the author needed to be deceptive to prove her point. She could have easily pointed out how a large percentage of the population is unable to pay even small amounts of bail and that it would be better to have them free during trial so they can continue to work and take care of their families instead of spending money incarcerating them before trial.

        4. Sam

          Author’s calculation with unweighted data from SCPS 2000–2009

          What is SCPS? I still don’t see anything that mentions that the figure came from felonies in either article or the footnote above. Aside from guessing, how do you know that the number is from felonies?


          1. David Greenwald

            “the latest comprehensive data available for felony cases”

            SCPS – State Court Processing Statistics

        5. Sam

          So in the third article that you link in the comment section the readers can determine that the $50,000 amount is for felonies. Clear as mud.

          If you do know the author then can you tell her that she might want to change the wording or stop using the inflated figure or readers will just assume she is trying to be deceptive and discredit the factual portions of the article.

          1. David Greenwald

            I disagree that it’s clear as mud. She wrote an article, she cited a figure from an analyst from the PPIC. She linked it. You wanted to understand where that came from which required a bit more work, but it was there.

            I agree that it would probably have been better to specify the $50,000 was for felony bail, but most of the conversation on bail reform is focused on felony bail anyway. It’s very rare to see someone held on bail for a misdemeanor charge. Go into the misdo arraignment in Yolo and you won’t see in custody’s.

            It certainly didn’t warrant some of the name calling.

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