The current cash bail system in California is classist, racist, and unfair, and the California Supreme Court recently agreed to make a change that will address some but not all of the ills that befall our system.
Our state’s top court ruled that it is unconstitutional to require people accused of committing a crime to remain behind bars pending a trial because they cannot afford bail. The ruling comes four months after voters rejected Proposition 25, which would have abolished the cash bail system altogether and replaced it with an algorithm or an oversight panel to measure the risk of flight or danger. This latest ruling keeps the current cash bail system in place for those who can afford to post bail while awaiting trial. Those who cannot afford to pay bail are now entitled to a hearing within 48 hours before a judge who will determine whether the accused should be allowed to remain free while awaiting trial.
Not surprisingly, it is because of a black man that we have found ourselves at his point. When Kenneth Humprey, a retired shipyard worker, was arrested in San Francisco for stealing $7 and a bottle of cologne, the system set the price for him to avoid pretrial incarceration at $600,000 before being reduced by the judge to $350,000. Humphrey, who was 63 years of age at the time, could not afford to pay his bail or even the 10% of it that the bail bond industry would require. His lawyers challenged the bail decision using a study of San Francisco’s criminal justice system that found Black adults are 11x times more likely than white adults to be denied the opportunity to remain free pending his or her trial date. This fact led then California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to make the court ruling binding on trial courts, meaning that Thursday’s ruling is now the law of the land.
Our Black and Brown communities are far too familiar with the devastating impact of pretrial detention. The current cash bail system has allowed those of means to purchase their way out of pretrial incarceration. At the same time, the more impoverished members of our society who present little or no risk to the community must suffer job loss, homelessness, loss of child custody, and other indignities while awaiting their opportunity to defend themselves in court. In it’s ruling, the court stated that “other conditions of release –such as electronic monitoring, regular check-ins with the pretrial case manager, community housing or shelter, and drug and alcohol treatment — can in many cases protect the public and victim safety as well as assure the arrestee’s appearance at trial.”
A system based on the principles of humanity rather than profit is long overdue. Human Rights Watch reported that six California counties spent $37.5 million in two years incarcerating people who had been accused of a crime but who were either never formally charged or were released after charges were dropped before trial. It is clear that when we move away from such inhumane practices and towards a criminal justice system that is fair, the benefits will redound to not just the accused and his or her families but the citizens of the cities and counties as well.
This decision is a step in the right direction, but we must do more to stop the usurious state-sponsored predatory cash bail system that inflicts so much damage on our communities. We must go even further and make our criminal justice system truly fair and just. We, the men and women of the Los Angeles Urban League, will continue to do our part to work with our communities, our cities, counties, and the state to fight for a fair and just system for all. Please join us in this critical, righteous, and long overdue endeavor.