Every day in California, thousands of people get arrested. Some are guilty. Some are innocent. Many are poor.
Often, they end up in crowded county jails worrying about getting fired for missing work and wondering who is going to take care of their children in their absence.
When they finally get to see a judge, they may find themselves with a bail of $50,000 – the median for California and five times higher than the median bail in most other states.
A lot of them don’t have $50,000 and so they must make a decision: Scrape together thousands of dollars and go into debt to pay a bail bonds company. Or take a plea deal and accept blame for a crime that they may not have committed just to get out of jail faster. Or stay in jail and let their lives unravel while the criminal justice system runs its course.
That isn’t much of a choice. In a matter of decades, bail has gone from a tool that compelled people accused of crimes to appear in court to one that pre-emptively punishes the poor and blindly incarcerates defendants who too often pose no threat to the public.
Thankfully, many states, including California, are starting to rethink the use of bail. No one is talking about eliminating it completely, just drastically reducing how often it is used – and it is used a lot in this state. It’s a movement that’s long overdue and, for many reasons, shouldn’t slow down now.
In 2008, Adam Liptak reported at The New York Times:
The rest of the world considers the American system a warning of how not to set up a pretrial release system, F. E. Devine wrote in “Commercial Bail Bonding,” a 1991 book that remains the only comprehensive international survey of the subject.
He said that courts in Australia, India and South Africa had disciplined lawyers for professional misconduct for setting up commercial bail arrangements.
Other countries use a mix of methods to ensure that defendants appear for trial.
Some simply keep defendants in jail until trial. Others ask defendants to promise to turn up for trial. Some make failure to appear a separate crime. Some impose strict conditions on release, like reporting to the police frequently. Some make defendants liable for a given sum should they fail to appear but do not collect it up front. Others require a deposit in cash from the defendant, family members or friends, which is returned when the defendant appears.
But injecting money into the equation, even without the bond company’s fee, is the exception. “Even purged of commercialism, most countries avoid a bail system based chiefly on financial security deposits,” Mr. Devine wrote.