Few issues are more urgently in need of attention from California lawmakers than bail reform. Every day, tens of thousands of presumably innocent Californians are sitting behind bars for no other reason than that they can’t afford the payment to go free.
They haven’t been convicted of a crime, but many of those awaiting trial will languish in county jails for months and even years. Some will lose their jobs while they wait. Others will lose their families and apartments. For them, time is of the essence.
But the wheels of government often turn slowly. We’re just happy that they’re turning at all on this unjust state of affairs.
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On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that a Senate bill that would greatly reduce the use of cash bail in California would be held this year. Instead, Brown, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Sen. Bob Hertzberg and Assemblyman Rob Bonta will work on the issue over the next few months, bringing back Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 10 early next year.
“I believe that inequities exist in California’s bail system,” Brown said in a statement Friday, “and I look forward to working this fall on ways to reform the system in a cost-effective and fair manner, considering public safety as well as the rights of the accused.”
This is no small thing.
For years, meaningful changes to the state’s cash bail system have been elusive, even though it clearly favors affluent defendants who can buy their way to pretrial freedom.
At $50,000, California’s median bail amount is higher than that of most states and is completely out of reach for most defendants, who tend to be people of color who are barely scraping by financially.
This isn’t a small group of people either. Sixty-two percent of those in county jails have not been convicted of a crime, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. That means the state, as a common practice, is jailing tens of thousands of possibly innocent people.
Bail bonds companies argue, without proof, that the current system is the only way to ensure defendants will show up for court. New Jersey, which reformed its bail system, has proven otherwise.
Yet, bail bonds companies here also insist, again without proof, that bail is the only way to ensure the public is safe from accused criminals and that justice is served – even though Cantil-Sakauye has said she suspects low-risk defendants often take plea deals for crimes they didn’t commit just to get out of jail faster.
Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, should investigate these claims in the coming months. He also should investigate the bail bonds industry itself.
More than protecting the public from criminals, we suspect bail bonds companies are protecting their profits. How much money do these companies really make off the backs of poor people? How many people really skip bail? And how many people would show up to court without it if they were released on their own recognizance?
These are questions that must be answered and soon. The tens of thousands of presumably innocent Californians sitting in county jails can’t afford to wait.