SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A scathing report has found California’s system of pretrial detention and arbitrarily-decided bail is unfairly punishing poor individuals, keeping people in jail who are never found guilty, and may be violating international human rights law.
A report by Human Rights Watch found that the ability for arrestees to mount a defense is largely based on whether or not they can afford bail. In addition, the report found that if they are released, it’s often because they are pleading guilty to avoid detention or the debilitating debt needed for bail.
Bail Agents Keen On Defending California’s Money-Based Bail System When No One Else Will
Pressure To Reform California’s Bail System Ramps Up
California’s Bail System Challenged In Court, May Be Unfair To Poor Defendants
Bail Reform Proposed To Help Poor Defendants In Santa Clara County
John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, told CBS San Francisco, “Pretrial detention through money bail is harming many Californians, including jailing hundreds of thousands of people never convicted of any crime at tremendous cost to those individuals, their families and taxpayers.”
Human Rights Watch maintains that some of the practices being used in California’s bail system, such as the “deliberate use of prohibitively high bail to help coerce guilty pleas and the reflexive use of bail schedules that make it difficult for low income defendants to secure their release” constitute arbitrary detention — a violation of international human rights law.
In Alameda County, nearly 40 percent of people who were booked into jail in 2014 and 2015 were kept in custody until their cases were either dismissed or until they were released with no charges being filed against them, according to the report.
During that same two-year period, housing all those people who ultimately were not charged or whose charges were dismissed or dropped, cost taxpayers about $14.8 million in Alameda County. That’s almost three times more than Sacramento County, which has a comparable population to Alameda County.
Plus, those arrested and jailed suffered lost wages and related costs due to their detainment, the report said.
The Human Rights Watch report notes that Alameda County courts stand out in that there is often no attorney appointed for the initial bail hearing. If an attorney is appointed they can fight for their client to be released pre-trial.
The report comes at a time when not only is there pending state legislation for bail reform, but also a pending lawsuit. In the lawsuit, the Bail Agents Association will defend California’s money-based bail system, after both the California attorney general and San Francisco city attorney chose not challenge the lawsuit.
Pre-trial detention was especially common in Alameda and San Francisco counties, according to the report. In those counties roughly 75 percent of the jail population during the two-year period were being held pretrial. That stands in stark comparison to about 50 percent of the jail populations in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties being held pre-trial.
In the counties that Human Rights Watch examined, they discovered that the “vast majority” of people who were released from jail after being sentenced were released before the earliest possible date that they could have gone to trial, meaning that many likely pleaded guilty in order to get back to their lives, jobs and families, not because they were guilty of a crime.
If an inmate was innocent, they would have had to stay in jail longer than they did if they pleaded guilty, the report found.
All six California counties examined in the report had disproportionately higher rates of black people being jailed than other races.
San Francisco had by far the most disproportionately high rate, with black people nine times more likely than white people to be jailed.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón has previously said that when money determines who is released, “…we are really ignoring the risk that that person presents or does not present to public safety.”
City Attorney Dennis Herera has called the state’s money-based bail system “unconstitutional.”
Raphling and others have noted that those who can afford to bail out of jail get the added benefit of being able to fight their case from the outside, instead of with limited resources behind bars.
Once released, they are able to show up for their hearing or trial in their own clothes instead of wearing a jail uniform or handcuffs, which may impact how a judge or jury perceives them.
And if someone is in a position to post bail, the Public Policy Institute of California says the median bail in California is $50,000, or over five times more than the nationwide average. Low-income individuals often turn to bail bonds and can get into significant debt.
The bottom line, the report states, is that low income individuals who have been arrested are forced to choose between going into debt from paying bail, staying in jail for months, or pleading guilty.
By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.