By Mica Doctoroff
Did you know that the median bail amount in California is $50,000? That’s just a little less than the state’s median income of $61,000.
Now, can you imagine being locked up, accused of a crime, and suddenly needing to scrape together almost a year’s income? If you answered “no,” you’re not alone.
Every year, California warehouses thousands of people in jails while they await their court dates — simply because they can’t afford to post bail. Meanwhile, wealthy people can easily buy their freedom.
When people can’t pay the total amount of bail up front, they have to make an impossible decision: sit in jail while their case moves forward, plead guilty (possibly to a crime they did not commit), or fork over thousands of nonrefundable dollars to a for-profit bail bonds company in order to secure release while they await their court date.
The vast majority of people who are charged with a crime have to make this choice — regardless of their innocence or if the charges against them are ultimately dropped.
Fortunately, California lawmakers are currently considering significant reforms that will help create a justice system that works for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 (SB 10 & AB 42) will promote the economic security, wellbeing, and safety of our communities. These two identical bills, introduced by Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), will create a system that prioritizes pretrial services to help people make their court appearances, and will prevent people from being locked up in jail simply because they are unable to post money bail.
The bills are incredibly important to ensure equal justice, but also to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in our state, to reduce the racial disparities plaguing our criminal justice system, and to keep families together.
Research shows that Black people are assigned higher bail amounts than white people accused of similar offenses. People who can’t post bail are at a higher risk of being convicted, pleading guilty (even if they’re innocent), and receiving harsher sentences. And because Black and Latino people are more likely than white people to be locked up while their cases move forward, money bail fuels pre-existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Pretrial detention has swift and severe impacts on the outcomes of people’s cases, and it can take significant and sometimes irreversible tolls on the accused’s health, wellbeing, and economic security. Just a few days in jail can cost people their car, job, housing, or even custody of their children.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that our communities are safer and healthier when families are whole.
You can help make sure that California adopts alternatives that truly promote the economic security, wellbeing, and safety of our communities.
Mica Doctoroff is a Legislative Attorney with the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy. She was a panelist at the Vanguard Bail Reform Event.