California Puts No-Money Where Its Bail Was
On Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown finally won a 40-year fight to end cash bail. The bill, SB10, abolishes the process of "paying bail" to avoid getting locked up before a court date, and instead establishes a system to gauge whether or not someone accused of a minor crime should be locked up like a Trump campaign staffer. Leave it to Californians to make government actually work
for the people.
The bill is a bit wonky, but it works like this: Rather than forcing people to cough up fat stacks of cash after being accused of five-finger discounts at the local 7-11, the new system evaluates people on a
"risk assessment" established by local judicial systems.
A person whose risk to public safety and risk of failure to appear is determined to be “low" would be released with the least restrictive non-monetary conditions possible. “Medium-risk" individuals could be released or held depending on local standards. “High-risk" individuals would remain in custody until their arraignment, as would anyone who has committed certain sex crimes or violent felonies, is arrested for driving under the influence for the third time in less than 10 years, is already under supervision by the courts or has violated any conditions of pretrial release in the previous five years.
The bill was originally co-sponsored by the ACLU, but they pulled out after judges insisted they have final say in who is considered a risk. The ACLU is now panning the bill hammered out by legislators and the judiciary, arguing it gives local courts and probation officers unchecked power to decide who goes home and who rots in pretrial detention. In other words, Devin Nunes would definitely get locked up for fucking a cow in LA, but there's a good chance a judge in Fresno would call that animal husbandry.
Bail reform has long been a goal for Gov. Brown -- and we mean long. Way back in his 1979 State of the State Address, he called for a bail system the was "just and fair." He was emboldened earlier this year when an appellate court ruled the state's current system was condemning poor folks to prison by setting bail amounts higher than they could be expected to pay.
"A debtor in Fleet Street Prison, London"Thomas Hosmer Shepherd
While California is the first state to abolish cash bail, others have been flirting with reform measures for years. Since 1992, DC courts have rarely imposed bail conditions; instead they send people through a gauntlet of counseling and drug testing programs. Over the last few years, New Jersey and Alaska have gotten rid of cash bail for most lesser crimes. Other states have been toying with bail reform, like squeezing out the for-profit bail bond industry. The results aren't always pretty, but they do have the added benefit of keeping reality show douchebags off the streets.
Nationally, bail reform measures are nothing new. Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris actually partnered with Republican Sen. Rand Paul last year to introduce the
Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act. The bill would have given grants to states and Indian tribes to stop using cash bail as a release condition. They even got Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu to introduce a companion bill in the House. In January, reps Danny Davis, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Bobby Rush introduced a bill that would have made states release people charged with misdemeanors "on non-monetary conditions" following court adjudication, just like California. And just last month Sen. Bernie Sanders jumped on the bandwagon with his No Money Bail Act that encourages states to use things like GPS monitors, and made the DOJ compile a report on the effectiveness of pretrial alternatives.
Naturally, the prison and bail bond industries see this as bad for business. Prison lobbies argue this creates crime sprees, as if a hustler busted for a dime bag is going to knock over a bodega, sodomize the cashier, and swear allegiance to ISIL after a few hours in lockup. Bail bondsmen complain that their shady businesses will collapse if states stop hiring them to hunt people down like the "Hounds of Zaroff." They've trotted out Dog the Bounty Hunter to flip around his bleached mullet and yammer on about how "poor people don't break the law," because, "they don't have the money to run."
California's bill isn't perfect, and certainly needs to be tweaked before it goes into effect in October 2019, but it's a big step in the right direction. With legislative gridlock and tribal partisanship keeping Congress locked down on reform, states are increasingly looking at the high cost of incarceration as a way to claw back some of their budgets and ease pressure from the overburdened prison system. It's just a damn shame it took decades for people to finally listen when Jerry Brown said poor people shouldn't be doomed to debtors prison just for getting a parking ticket.