California Comes One Step Closer to Ending Cash Bail

The fight to end cash bail in California may be approaching a radical conclusion now that the state’s Assembly has passed a bill that would effectively eliminate this controversial and widespread practice. If the bill makes it through the Senate and gets the governor’s seal of approval, it would make California the first state in the nation to stop relying on this outdated — and incredibly unjust — system.

Campaigners have been fighting to eliminate cash bail for decades, but in recent years, the cause has risen to national prominence. Kamala Harris, one of California’s two Democratic senators, even co-introduced a bipartisan bill to get rid of bail on the national level last year. Meanwhile, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has called out bail in her highly progressive campaign.

If you’re not familiar with the topic, you might be wondering why people are upset about cash bail. As the system currently works, when people accused of crimes are deemed low-risk, they can be released, but they may be required to pay a fee — bail — as a guarantee against their appearance. This is an alternative to pre-trial detention, which could leave people sitting for weeks or months while their cases work their way through the system.

The problem is that bail amounts are often extremely high, which has cultivated an adjacent bail bonds industry. Inmates and/or their families can borrow money from a bail bondsperson by putting up a percentage of the overall bail fee — but of course, it doesn’t come without strings, like high interest, attached.

Many defendants can’t afford bail or the bondsperson’s fee, so they end up sitting in jail for relatively trivial crimes. Incarceration is expensive for the state, and it seriously impacts inmates and their families.

People may lose their jobs, miss landmark events in the lives of loved ones and become isolated from their communities. The conditions in jails and prisons are unhealthy, creating an increased risk of becoming injured, falling ill or being unable to maintain care for a chronic condition like diabetes or HIV.

Some prisoners may even plead guilty out of a desire to get the case over with.

The solution advanced by those advocating to eliminate bail is exactly what it sounds like on the tin: If we stop charging money to be released from jail, this exploitative system can’t continue.

As an alternative, civil rights activists suggest conducting thoughtful risk assessments to determine who should be kept in pre-trial detention or released until their cases can be tried. California’s bill actually goes a step further, eliminating other costs associated with release — like charging for ankle monitors.

But people on both sides of the political spectrum aren’t totally happy with the California bill. Progressives say it gives judges too much latitude, which opens the risk of discriminatory pre-trial detention decisions. Rather than presenting a clear, transparent, equitable risk assessment framework — pre-trial detention for people accused of “serious crimes” like murder — the bill muddies the waters.

But that’s actually by design: The legislature wanted to get the legal system to endorse the proposal — and to make that happen, they had to satisfy judges concerned about not having enough latitude for special circumstances.

However, knowing the racial biases within the justice system, these circumstances may acquire a distinctly racialized flavor. That’s why groups like the ACLU are now opposing the landmark bill, fearing it will replace one unjust system with another.

The bill also allows for much more local control, which raises more concerns about bias and oversight. If the rules across the state are consistent, people accused of a crime in any county can expect the same treatment. But if those rules aren’t equitable, however, someone facing a court in conservative Orange County may be treated differently than someone in liberal San Francisco County.

Tensions over this bill highlight the stakes of bail reform. Some critics say this bill should be abandoned, and the legislature should take up a new version with their concerns in mind. Others insist that some progress is better than none, and the bill should pass and be reformed later.

Along the way, the dispute demonstrates the value of reading up on legislation that seems positive — or negative – on the surface: More investigation may reveal hidden catches.

Photo Credit: Hakan Dahlstrom/Flickr

37 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Angela K
Angela K6 months ago

Noted

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Carol C
Carol C6 months ago

Good news: Gov. Brown has signed the bill into law. Bad news: it doesn't go into effect until October 2019.

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danii p
danii p6 months ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p6 months ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p6 months ago

Thank you

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Dave fleming
Past Member 6 months ago

TFS

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Camilla V
Camilla Vaga6 months ago

thx

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Brian F
Brian F7 months ago

I agree with Wesley. I got caught going through a speed trap in Virginia a couple of years ago. I had to pay a lawyer $300.00. Our court system is designed to extort money from poor people. The rich CEO of Walmart who makes $9,000 an hour, wouldn't have to worry about paying $300.00 for a speeding ticket, because it's pocket change to him, but poor people cannot afford this amount of money. So our corrupt court system criminalizes and enslaves poor people, by using cash bail, and expensive fines that poor people cannot afford to pay.

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Danuta W
Danuta W7 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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