SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The city and county of San Francisco is unconstitutionally criminalizing poverty by keeping poor arrestees in jail because they can't afford to post bail, a federal class action claims.
"Nobody should be detained because they're too poor to pay an arbitrary amount of money," Phil Telfeyan of the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under the Law told reporters Thursday. "A very, very dangerous criminal might be released if they can post $100,000 bond, whereas a completely nonviolent detainee might be in jail for months pending trial simply because she's too poor to pay that bond amount."
The class is led by Riana Buffin, 19, and Crystal Patterson, 29. Both women were arrested earlier this week and charged respectively with grand theft and assault.
Buffin's bail was set at $30,000, Patterson's at $150,000. Both have since had their charges dropped.
Patterson was able to scrape together $1,500 from friends and family to pay a bail bondsman but is still on the hook to the private company for $15,000 - 10 percent of the $150,000 bond.
"It's quite likely that had we been able to get them to court in front of a judge they would have been released on their own recognizance. But that would have required them to wait several days, more time than either of them could afford to wait in custody," said deputy public defender Chesa Boudin. "Poor people's lives are turned upside down every day they're kept in jail."
Telfeyan underscored the women's plights.
"These aren't career criminals, these aren't serial offenders. Nobody sees them as a serious threat to others, and yet they were detained simply because of their wealth status," he said.
Boudin added that poor detainees are severely prejudiced by trying to mount a defense from jail, where it's harder to review discovery and track down key witnesses.
"The problem with San Francisco's bail practice is it ensures that those hardships fall exclusively on the city's poorest," he said.
The lawsuit notes that Buffin is the sole caretaker of her disabled mother and two younger brothers."Two days in jail matters," Telfeyan said. "Ms. Buffin was in jail for two days only to see her charges discharged. For her to be in jail for two days has a huge negative impact on her life, her ability to retain her employment and take care of her family. It's a real human cost."
Telfeyan said his group has brought six successful lawsuits in cities and counties in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Missouri. "Those cities have agreed to stop using money bail altogether," he said. Two actions in Georgia and Kansas are still being litigated.
The state of California is also named as a defendant, Telfeyan explained, because state law requires the city and county of San Francisco to use a fixed bail schedule that does not take individual circumstances into account.
California's bail requirements stand in stark contrast to the federal system, where arrestees are not required to put up money for their freedom.
"They'll actually go before a judge who will evaluate if they're a flight risk or a danger to others. If not, which is the vast majority of arrestees, that person is free. We don't tie it to wealth - it's based on danger or flight risk. It's only the cities and counties that require money to be put up front," Telfeyan said.
What's unique about this case is its support from San Francisco's top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
"We are detaining or incarcerating people simply because of the size of their bank accounts," Mirkarimi said Thursday, noting that over 30 percent of people detained in San Francisco's county jail cannot afford a $5,000 bond. Of that number, 31 percent cannot afford even $500.
"It costs $63,000 a year to incarcerate someone in our county jail. But alternatives to incarceration that are just as effective are a fraction of the cost. Electronic monitoring could be a tenth if not less than the cost of incarceration," Mirkarimi said.
Buffin and Patterson want a ban on money bail in San Francisco, along with compensation for the time they spent in jail. They are represented by Telfeyan and Katherine Hubbard with Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, D.C.Follow @MariaDinzeo
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