Last week I wrote about computer-assisted bail decisions. There is something even bigger afoot: a bill before the California Legislature—California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017—would end bail altogether for a wide array of charged offenses. Even when a judge grants bail, the offender often can’t pay it. This results in a huge number of individuals who are incarcerated even though they have not been convicted of any crime. In effect, they are incarcerated because they are poor—or at least, too poor to pay the bail bill. The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 would end excessive bail amounts for most misdemeanors and some felonies.
Consider that the median bail amount ordered in California is $50,000. Even with the services of a bail bondsman, the defendant, or his or her family and friends, must come up with $5,000 to make bail. This is no small amount, especially if you are poor. And it means that a defendant unable to make bail will probably lose his or her job, with the cascading consequences of a job loss. Seems as though the bail system is pretty unfair to poor people and that is one of the primary reasons for the introduction of this bill. And if you think this affects only a small number of people, you would be wrong. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, over 60 percent of inmates incarcerated in county jails across the state are there awaiting trial or sentencing, that translates into 46,000 incarcerated individuals on any given day. Most are there because they couldn’t afford bail. Not only does this affect the individual who couldn’t post bail, but his or her family too.
In reality what this creates is a two-tiered system. One for the reasonably well-off and one for the not so well-off. If a person accused of a crime—even a very serious crime—has enough money to make bail, he or she will usually be granted freedom on bail. If a person is too poor to make bail—even for a minor crime such as a misdemeanor—he or she will lose the freedom to return home to family and work. In both cases, the alleged offender is innocent until proven guilty but one is free the other is a prisoner. What justice is there when it takes money to buy your freedom?