California Pushes Major Reform of Bail System

SACRAMENTO (CN) — When Melodie Henderson was arrested 10 years ago, she had no idea it would be the beginning of a decade-long ordeal that would devastate her family financially and ruin her credit — until she was hit with a $50,000 bond.

“When we heard that number, it was kind of this hopeless, sick-to-our-stomach kind of feeling,” Henderson told the California Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Henderson had been living with her grandparents, who didn’t have the cash, so they paid a bail bondsmen using credit cards and money they borrowed from other family members.

“If we knew the hardships we would have to overcome after that decision, I may have chosen different for myself,” Henderson said. “The debt was pretty overwhelming. The bail bondsmen wouldn’t work with us. They wanted it paid in full in like four months. It was a very unrealistic payment plan. More credit card debt went into this. We were paying interest on top of interest.”

Stories like Henderson’s have spurred a recent legislative effort to end the commercial money bail system as we know it in California.

“Pretrial detention has become so lopsided that it really challenges the underlying constitutional premises of our government. Justice is determined by the size of your wallet, not your public safety risk,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg D-Van Nuys.

He is co-author of a bill that would replace money bail with pre-trial risk assessments that will allow most detainees to fight their legal battles from home, rather than a jail cell.

“We’re going to have a system where we’ll be able to have efficient, rapid, accurate assessments of flight risk and public safety,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta D-Alameda, co-author of SB 10.

The bill will require trial judges to consider a pre-trial report that evaluates each felony detainee’s level of public safety or flight risk, then either release that person on his or her own recognizance, or set bail at “the least restrictive level necessary to assure the appearance of the defendant in court as required.”

“This bill seeks to fix and transform a broken money bail system that punishes people for being poor,” Bonta told the Public Safety Committee. “This bill helps us achieve a trifecta, where we’re providing more justice for individuals who are arrested, where we will be providing more public safety because we’ll be using tools that specifically determine the safety risk and flight risk of an individual rather than using money as some rough and far from perfect proxy for safety. Finally, it will lead us to a place where we’ll be more prudently spending tax dollars.”

Bonta said he and the bill’s co-authors relied on studies showing that one-third of detainees are being held in jail because they can’t afford bail.

“So we’re essentially paying $100 a day to keep folks who aren’t a risk to the public in jail,” he said.

The Senate Public Safety Committee sent the bill to the Appropriations Committee, the next step on the way to the full Senate.

Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, voted against it, saying he the bill will have the opposite of its intended effect.

“Superior Court judges are elected officials, and if I’m giving them the discretion to release someone on their own recognizance knowing that they have a high propensity to re-offend, I’m going to err on the side of keeping those people in jail,” Stone said. “So while I’ve heard arguments that we’re going to be emptying our jails out and creating capacity, I’m concerned that we’re actually going to be keeping more people in jail.”

Testifying against the bill, Jeff Clayton with the American Bail Coalition said: “I’ve heard that concern, that the risk assessments are conservative and can paint people as riskier than perhaps a judge might think, and so it can backfire. We have to trust judges to try to get it right.”

Judges already have the discretion to release pretrial detainees if they think do not pose a risk of flight or public safety.

Clayton said the real problem is that the bail schedules, which are set by individual counties, are just too high.

Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Los Angeles, asked Bonta whether he had looked at a single uniform bail schedule that might be more equitable.

“We’re moving sort of beyond that. We’re not going to be having bail schedules. We’re moving in a place where the bail schedules will not be a problem because we won’t be using them at all,” Bonta said.

Sen. Nancy Skinner D-Alameda, said she supported the bill because of people like Henderson who are not indigent, but were financially ruined by bail payments.

“It was not a situation where she or her family were completely without resources, but rather the bail circumstance then compromised them for over 10 years,” Skinner said. “Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean indigent. We don’t need to add to people’s poverty in our pursuit of justice.”

Henderson eventually signed a plea agreement. She was convicted of a felony and sentenced to community service. She finished her hours after 10 months, heavily in debt.

“My grandparents ended up having to make most of these payments for me, which was really hard for me,” she said. “The burden I placed on them was heartbreaking. I heard them having conversations about grocery shopping, and how much money they could afford for that.”

She made the last payment on her own and is now a small business owner, but still has blemishes on her credit.

“I ended up throwing 10 years of my life away,” Henderson said.  “The hardship that bail debt caused me and my family ended up being the harshest punishment of all.”

Lawsuits have been filed in numerous cities, counties and states, particularly across the Midwest and South, challenging cash bail systems as unconstitutional discrimination against the poor, often with racial implications.

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