By Sophia Rome
The money bail system has long been a norm in the United States and is widely accepted as the routine that follows someone’s arrest. While most people know what money, bail is, most are not aware of the need for immense reform in the system. Evidently, this system is broken and creates more financial hardship for accused people of lower socioeconomic status, as well as for the state. Currently there are discussions taking place in the California State Assembly regarding the passage of bills for reforming the bail system in California. The first one, AB 42, has been stalled, while another, SB 10, appears to have a more hopeful future. As such, it is more important than ever for community members to mobilize in support of this type of legislation. This is especially important in those districts where the representative assembly member abstained from voting on AB 42, including Eloise Gómez Reyes, whose district includes a large part of the city of San Bernardino.
When someone is arrested for anything – such as stealing a chocolate bar, getting pulled over while already in debt for other traffic tickets, or being involved in someone else’s criminal situation – the process of temporary liberation before trial, known as the bail system needs to be followed, with conditions set by the judge to ensure that the defendant will appear in court. These conditions are usually quite a high fee; the median bail in California is around $50,000. The majority of people are not able to pay this amount of money, hence the fact that about 60% of those incarcerated in the U.S. today are still awaiting their trials simply because they cannot pay their bail. In other words, hundreds of thousands of people in jail have not yet been convicted, and their presence in jail costs the state and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Furthermore, those who want to avoid being incarcerated before their trials often seek services from bail bondsmen. This type of bondsman has financial support from the nation’s large insurance companies, and works to give loans to people to pay their bail. However, those who receive help from bail bondsmen need to pay them a downpayment of around 10% of their bail amount, on top of an interest rate; in the end, a person can need to continue paying a bail bondsman for over a year. As if this weren’t enough, if someone who was able to pay bail is then found innocent in his or her trial, the bail money will be returned; meanwhile if someone who asked a bail bondsman for help is then found innocent in his or her trial, the bail money will NOT be returned.
So, our organization, Bend the Arc, has a moral and political mission. In the California Assembly the bill AB 42 Bail, has currently been stalled; however, the bill SB 10 is still on the horizon.
“This bill would state the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial, while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system, to ensure that people are not held in pretrial detention simply because of the inability to afford money bail.” – excerpt from text of Assembly Bill 42, also present in SB 10
The proposed system would initiate a slower and more meticulous process of deciding an accused person’s bail terms. It intends to abandon the system of asking for high fees from accused people, and replace it with a legal contract in which the accused signs to assure his or her appearance in court. Discussions about the passage of this bill continue in the assembly, and we are working to mobilize Southern California residents to encourage their assembly members to vote in favor of SB 10, and bring up discussions about AB 42 once again.
In coalition with many other social justice organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ella Baker Center, the Essie Justice Group and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Bend the Arc has committees focused on a wide range of social justice issues for which we organize action. Evidently, the movement for bail reform cannot happen without the support of everyday citizens, constituents of the California State Assembly members. Whether it be calling assemblymember Reyes’s office, helping us organize a lobby visit with Reyes, watching and/or hosting a screening of a short documentary made by the organization Brave New Films to address this issue or realizing any other form of community action, the support of the residents of this district is more important than ever.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.