Daniel Soto, a high schooler who was stabbed and then jailed for being the aggressor, spent weeks behind bars because his family couldn't afford to bail him out. A judge later dismissed his charges. Jason Miller, a homeless man, lost all his belongings on the street because he was jailed on drug allegations for three days without the ability to pay for bond. Charges against him were never filed. Dante Johnson was accused of wielding a gun in his neighborhood, even though he didn't fit the cops' description. With no money for bail, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served, plus probation.
All of these Southern California injustices could have been avoided if the state's bail system had been reformed, according to a report, “Not in It for Justice: How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People,” released today by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.
“The problem is that people are doing their time before they've been convicted,” says the report's author, John Raphling, an L.A.-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch-U.S. He says the report was a year and a half in the making. “The bail system subverts the presumption of innocence.”
He found that between 2011 and 2015, about a third of the 1,451,441 people jailed for alleged felonies were found not guilty, had their cases dismissed or never saw charges filed. But they spent time behind bars anyway, because they couldn't come up with bail.
In the six California counties analyzed from 2014 to 2015, including Los Angeles, 77 to 91 percent of felony defendants “pled out before they had a chance to assert their innocence,” according to the report. In other words, coerced by the threat of long-running jail time, they entered pleas regardless of their guilt or innocence, Raphling argues. “People in custody will plead guilty because it's the only way out.”
This has ramifications. “It shifts the balance of power to police,” who know an arrest is a de facto conviction for those without means, Raphling says. The poor get poorer and sometimes lose jobs. Those facing jail-or-bail hardships are overwhelmingly African-American, the research found. And jailing people who aren't guilty is a “huge waste of money for taxpayers,” Raphling adds. It costs L.A. County taxpayers about $116 a day to keep people locked up — guilty or innocent.
California’s median bail (a whopping $50,000, which would require at least a $5,000 bond) is five times that of other states, the report found. But rather than reduce bail amounts, the report recommends doing away with bail — and letting police “cite and release” suspects — for all misdemeanors and “non-serious” crimes.
“The report clearly shows the pitfalls of California's wasteful and harmful two-tiered system of justice, where the wealthy get preferential treatment and others get jail and debt,” says Mica Doctoroff, a legislative attorney with the ACLU of California. “It highlights the urgency and need for reform.”
A pair of complementary legislative proposals would begin to change the system. SB 10 and AB 42 by Van Nuys Sen. Bob Hertzberg and Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta seek to reduce bail amounts or do away with them altogether in the case of many nonviolent suspects. They would require “risk assessment” for release for qualifying defendants — and then, if bail is the only way, “set monetary bail at the least restrictive level necessary to assure the appearance of the defendant in court,” according to Hertzberg's office.
While Raphling is wary of having computers do risk assessment on people's lives, he says the bills are “a step in the right direction.”