Hertzberg Unveils Legislation to Reform Money Bail
The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 aims to eliminate the economic disparity and injustice in the pretrial process
SACRAMENTO – Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, unveiled legislation today to reform California’s cash bail system and replace a pretrial process that often forces people of modest means to remain in jail until a court can determine their innocence or guilt but allows the wealthy to go free.
The legislation, entitled The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, will be introduced shortly after the 2017-18 state legislative session is called to order at noon. Hertzberg and Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, are introducing identical bills and working together with a broad coalition to craft the reform.
“The presumption of innocence is one of the foundations of the American justice system, but every day thousands of Californians who are awaiting trial are forced to be in jail because they don’t have the money to post bail,” Hertzberg said. “The current cash bail system is the modern equivalent of debtor’s prison – it criminalizes poverty, pure and simple – and that’s not right.”
According to the most recent data available, 63 percent of the inmates in county jails are awaiting trial or sentencing. That’s roughly 46,000 Californians on any given day. While some defendants are considered too dangerous to release or a flight risk and should be held in custody for those reasons, most are not a threat to public safety and could be released, monitored and reminded when to return for court hearings.
“California’s bail system punishes poor people simply for being poor,” said Bonta. “In many cases, if you have enough money to pay your bail, you can get out regardless of whether you are a risk to the public. But if you’re poor, you have to sit in jail even when the charge is a misdemeanor like a traffic ticket. That’s not justice.”
Recognizing the inherent injustice of the cash bail system, jurisdictions across the country have begun experimenting with alternatives. Most notably, for more than two decades, Washington, D.C., has run a pretrial services program that only detains defendants considered too dangerous to release into the community while others are sent home, monitored and given reminders on when to return for court hearings.
The median bail in California is $50,000, and 10 percent – what would be needed to pay a bail agent for release – is $5,000, an amount beyond the reach of most Californians. In fact, according to a report earlier this year by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency expense and would have to sell something or borrow money to cover the cost.
Even bail for the most minor offenses can run over $1,000. And for people who can’t pay, their lives are turned upside down, waiting in jail for weeks or months before their case goes to court. The result is devastating for the individuals, who can end up losing their jobs, their homes and almost anything of value, and creates great turmoil and difficulty for their families.
Furthermore, studies indicate incarcerating people before trial has a corrupting influence on justice. For one, many people charged with minor crimes who are unable to pay bail but believe they are innocent decide to plead guilty to the charge simply to get out of jail, keep their jobs and return to their families.
Studies also show that defendants who are held in jail for the entire pretrial period are four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and receive sentences that are three times longer than defendants with the same charge who are released prior to their trials.
The legislation is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Californians for Safety and Justice, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and other justice advocacy groups.
“We commend Senator Hertzberg and Assemblymember Bonta for showing leadership in advocating for alternatives to pretrial detention that can reduce jail populations and incarceration costs as well as increase fairness and safety,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “The commercial bail system wastes resources, hurts communities and fails to stop the cycle of crime.”
The average daily cost to counties to hold inmates awaiting trial runs over $100 per inmate, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections. In Los Angeles County, the cost is $116. The cost of supervising a defendant in the community is about 10 percent the cost of keeping him or her in jail, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.
"Right now, you can get out of jail if you can afford to pay for your freedom," said Jennifer Kim, Director of Programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "Money bail punishes people for being poor and targets people of color who are often over-charged with crimes that carry heavier sentences and face higher bail amounts. People of color are already over-policed, and arrested and detained more often than their white counterparts, and bail only services to intensify existing disparities in the criminal justice system."
The measure is part of Hertzberg’s ongoing efforts to restore justice to California’s criminal justice system and roll back unfair and overly harsh penalties and fines that hit the poor and the working poor especially hard.
In 2015, Hertzberg authored SB 405, which, along with Brown’s related budget proposal, established a new traffic amnesty program. The program allows people to talk to a judge if they want to before paying fines, restores driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduces exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account in setting the fine amount.
In the first nine months of that program, more than 175,000 Californians have received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 153,000 Californians have had their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated, according to the California Judicial Council.
Hertzberg went on in 2016 to author SB 881, which requires courts to respond to traffic amnesty claims within 90 days of the claims being filed, and SB 882, which prohibits youths from being charged with a criminal violation for transit fare evasion and instead treats the offense through an administrative process.
Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, represents nearly 1 million San Fernando Valley residents of Senate District 18, which includes part of Burbank and the following communities in Los Angeles: Arleta, Granada Hills, Hansen Dam, Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hills, North Hollywood, part of Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, part of Sun Valley, Sylmar, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, the City of San Fernando and Universal City. See a district map at http://sd18.senate.ca.gov/district. After serving in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker, Hertzberg invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects; and worked for structural changes in government through the Think Long Committee of California. Learn more at www.senate.ca.gov/hertzberg.
MEDIA CONTACT: Andrew LaMar
Senator Robert M. Hertzberg
Capitol Building, Room 4038
Sacramento, CA 95814