Imagine you’re arrested for a crime you didn’t commit. You’re taken to jail and told you’ll only be released if you can pay a large amount of bail money, say $5,000 — 10 percent of $50,000, the median bail amount in California — to a bondsman. You can’t come up with the bail money. What do you do?
Well, in California, you’ll be forced to sit in jail until you either plead guilty to the charges or you get acquitted after going to trial, which can take months or, in far too many cases, even years.
Pre-trial justice systems should be based upon public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. California fails on these fronts.
Several states have taken the lead on bail reform. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s bail reform bill got bipartisan support to eliminate most cases of cash bail for individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses. In 2014, New Jersey passed a comprehensive bail reform bill, followed by a constitutional amendment. The law went into effect last year, and already the state’s jail population is down by over 30 percent.
In California, the way individuals are dealt with after they are charged with crimes makes little sense from a public safety or fiscal perspective. Those who can afford to post bail, regardless of the risk they pose to the community, are released back into their communities and can attempt to keep their jobs and live their lives while fighting the legal charges brought against them. Meanwhile, low-income people, even those charged with nonviolent crimes, frequently cannot afford the bail that’s been set in their cases so they’re forced to remain locked up in jail, making it more likely that they’ll lose their jobs, will be unable to care for their children, and suffer other financial consequences without having been proven guilty.
A study by the Arnold Foundation found that detaining someone in jail pre-trial for even as little as a day means that they are more likely to be re-arrested before their case is resolved, regardless of whether they were guilty of the original charges.
Judges should be able to detain dangerous individuals before trial if they pose a real threat to public safety. However, California currently does not use any risk assessment tool to determine whether someone poses a risk to their communities after they’re arrested. Instead, dangerous individuals who have the money to post bail can be released simply because of their wealth. Low-risk individuals — even those charged with offenses that don’t come with prison time post-conviction — are routinely locked up in jail for extended amounts of time because they’re too poor to post bail.
It’s an unjust system that is in serious need of reform. Beyond having no accountability to public safety, it’s extremely expensive to taxpayers.
The cost of incarcerating someone in jail pre-trial is about $114 per day. With over 48,000 individuals awaiting trial or sentencing housed in California jails, that costs taxpayers over $5 million per day. Some of these individuals are never convicted of crimes at all. Over the course of two years, six counties in California paid over $37.5 million to jail individuals who were never convicted of crimes. It’s hard to argue that detaining innocent people benefits anyone at all — and in fact is contrary to principles our country was founded on.
California’s bail system is enormously ineffective. It does not adequately prioritize public safety and it’s an expensive waste of money for taxpayers to house low-risk individuals in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
It’s even more expensive when one takes into account lost employment opportunities for those who lose their jobs after they get caught up in the system.
Bail reform has passed in other states across the country and more are beginning to reimagine how they deal with their pre-trial populations. California has the opportunity to make significant improvements to this system, and enhance lives by doing so. State leaders should take that opportunity.
This column previously appeared in the Orange County Register.