(CN) – Two California lawmakers said Monday they’ll make reforming the state’s money-bail system a priority in the coming year, saying it unfairly penalizes the poor.
“The fundamental presumption of innocence is absolutely at the core of foundation of the American justice system. Every day thousands of Californians who are awaiting trial are forced to be in jail because of one simple reason- they don’t have the money to get out,” state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said at press conference. “The current money-bail system is the modern equivalent of debtor’s prison – it criminalizes poverty, pure and simple – and that’s just not right.”
He said dangerous defendants should be held in jail until trial. But he added most defendants don’t fall into that category, and 46 percent of Americans don’t have the money to cover even a $400 emergency expense.
“Bail often runs into the thousands of dollars even for the most minor charges,” Hertzberg said. “Think about that if it meant your liberty. Our system is clogged with nonviolent people who simply cannot pay for bail or bail bondsmen.”
Shamika Wilson with the Essie Justice System currently has a husband in jail, and has firsthand knowledge of the money-bail system.
“I know what it means to take on the cost of our broken bail system personally. It is devastating to families like mine,” Wilson said Monday. “There are few situations as difficult as when you get that phone call from someone you love saying they were falsely arrested and on the verge of losing everything if you can’t bail them out.
She said her little brother was arrested outside the family home because he “resembled someone who was reported doing robberies in our community.” His bail was set at $45,000, without regard to his financial status or that he was three credits away from finishing school.
Wilson said she was wracked with guilt because she couldn’t pull together $4,500 to pay a bail agent’s fee.
“For a family like ours, it may as well have been $10 million,” she said.
The charges were eventually dropped, but she said her family was left emotionally and financially scarred. “My brother just gave up hope. Having spent four months behind bars for something he didn’t do is just awful,” she said.
Alongside Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, Hertzberg introduced a pair of identical bills called The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, intended to reduce the number of people who are in held in jail before trial because they cannot afford to post bail.
“California’s bail system punishes poor people simply for being poor. In many cases, if you have enough money to pay your bail, you can get out regardless of whether you are a risk to the public,” Bonta said in a statement. “But if you’re poor, you have to sit in jail even when the charge is a misdemeanor like a traffic ticket. That’s not justice.”
He added, “We need evidence-based reforms that accurately assess someone’s risk to the public and their likelihood of showing up for their court hearings. Right now, money bail is just an indicator of a person’s wealth.”