Activists in Santa Clara County and throughout the state held rallies this week to call for an end to the money bail system. The demonstrations came as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he would not challenge a historic bail reform ruling that abolishes the use of high money bail to jail poor people without giving them constitutionally required detention hearings.
Deputy Public Defender Avi Singh applauded the landmark court decision.
“[The Public Defender’s Office] has been saying for years that it’ unacceptable for a person to be held just because they can’t afford to get out,” Singh said outside the Hall of Justice, where a few-dozen people gathered with him on Tuesday. “That doesn’t fit with our constitution. That doesn’t fit with our values.”
Similar demonstrations were held throughout the Bay Area, the Central Valley and in Southern California. The rally in San Jose was spearheaded by civil rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug and the Public Defender’s Office.
The event came a month after the First District Court of Appeal issued a ruling in a case involving 64-year-old Kenneth Humhprey, who was accused of stealing a bottle of cologne and $5 from a neighbor at a San Francisco hotel last year. A judge set his bail at $600,000 and later dropped it down to $350,000—both prohibitively expensive for the low-income defendant.
On Jan. 25, the court sided with Humphrey’s public defender and the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, and ruled that judges in California should stop adhering to the money bail schedule—particularly in cases where the defendant poses little risk to public safety if granted pretrial release. The court also directed judges to explore alternatives such as electronic monitoring and other forms of supervised release.
News of Becerra’s decision not to appeal that ruling energized activists from De-Bug, who have been fighting for meaningful bail reform in this county for the past few years.
“We must continue to pursue changes in our bail system to ensure it’s rooted in principles of fairness and prioritizes public safety for all,” Becerra tweeted earlier this week, explaining that he, too, supports lasting reforms to the money bail system. “Decisions regarding who should remain in jail while awaiting trial should be based on their threat to public safety, not dollars in their pockets.”
While Humphrey finally got a hearing this week, De-Bug stressed how more than 60 percent of people in California jails are pretrial detainees—meaning they’re locked up because they cannot afford bail. Audrey “Mama” Parker spoke at the rally about how her son, Jason Fitch, has been jailed for nearly three years because he can’t afford to get out.
“My son has kids and they need him home,” Parker said in front of the courthouse moments before her son’s scheduled hearing.
Parker said she hopes to schedule Fitch the bail hearing he’s now entitled to.
“He has a family that supports him,” she said, “that will stand behind him and make sure he makes every court appearance. Even as I speak right now, his old job is willing to take him back, so that he can pay for his bail. Right now his bail is too high for our family.”
De-Bug organizer and ex-inmate Jose Valle applauded the Humphrey ruling, Becerra’s announcement, but said cases like Fitch’s prove that there’s more work to be done.
“This is a great win, but not the final win,” he told San Jose Inside.
Santa Clara County has taken the lead on a number of bail reform proposals already. THe Board of Supervisors last year voted to create a nonprofit bail fund to post bonds for defendants who could not otherwise afford it.
Valle also stressed the importance of a proposed state law, Senate Bill 10, which seeks to modernize pretrial services. The bill, if it were to become law, would offer a number of alternatives to paying excessive bail amounts, including community release programs—a project Valle’s organization helped roll into the bill that would allow qualifying individuals to be released under the supervision of a nonprofit organization. Valle explained that it would then be the the nonprofit's responsibility—not a commercial bail bond lender—to ensure that the defendant makes it to court.
Organizers also used the event to educate people about their rights, handing out fliers describing how they can request a hearing where the court is required to examine one’s ability to pay before bail is set. De-Bug also handed out a checklist for people who need help monitoring court proceedings in order to make sure officials are adhering to the standards set by the Humphrey decision.
Singh said what the courts need are pretrial services that fit the needs of the accused.
“[For example], if there is some concern about a particular individual that can be addressed through alcohol monitoring, then you can use that solution without jailing that person a year before their case is finished,” he explained.
Singh also talked about how a move to resist pretrial incarceration could actually save money for agencies funded by taxpayer money.
“We impose a great deal of cost on ourselves when we hold people pretrial, pre-conviction,” he added.
Indeed, according to the county Office of Pretrial Services, the average daily cost to keep a defendant behind bars is around $159, while the average length of stay is 208 days. It should also be noted that as of June 2017, 70 percent of the county jail population had not yet gone to trial—a pretrial detention rate that exceeds the state average.
Rev. Jeff Moore, of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, began his speech reminding organizers at the rally about the dark history the country has had with incarcerating people of color.
“In 1917, indentured servitude was outlawed in America, yet we find our black and brown brothers are still being given bails they cannot afford to pay,” he said.
Moore said pretrial incarceration plays right into role of the prison industrial complex by increasing the probability of conviction and causing people to take plea out more often “just so they can get out and get back some normalcy.” He called a Becerra’s decision “a step in the right direction for all citizens,” but did not hesitate to call out state Democrats who are opposed SB 10.
“Too many of our Democratic people are in the pockets of these Bail Bond Associations,” Moore said. “We need to make sure that, come election time to vote against those accepting money against SB10.”
He added: “It’s time for America to step truly into the 21st century and free our people of color and stop keeping them in bondage.”