Lawmakers target state's 'discriminatory' cash bail system

Sami Gallegos
ABC 10
December 6, 2016

Ato Walker's charges were dropped, but that wasn't until after he spent five days in jail and his mother had to use her retirement savings to cover $85,000 in bail.

Walker, 37, said when he was falsely accused of a crime, hundreds of members of his community vouched for him in court, "saying that I was a decent human being."

"And even still," he said at a Monday press conference on reforming the state's money bail system, "inside the courtroom the district attorney said that, 'Oh, it seems like he's a threat to society.' And the judge went with that."

The Prison Policy Institutes estimates nationally, about a third of the people sitting in jail cells can relate to Walker's frustrating story, of serving time behind bars before being convicted solely because they can't afford to post bail. 

The average bail amount in California is $50,000, which reform proponents say is well out of reach for most people to cover in full or with a bail bond company. According to stats cited by lawmakers who want to change California's cash for bail system, 63 percent of inmates in the state's county jails -- about 46,000 people every day -- are awaiting trial or sentencing. 

It costs the state about $4.5 million a day to incarcerate people who haven't had their case resolved in court, according to research by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. 

"[The money bail system] criminalizes poverty, as the science says, pure and simple," said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, (D - Los Angeles), who's co-authoring reform legislation. "And that is, at the core of who we are, just not right."

When a person is exonerated in court, like in Walker's case, their bail money is refunded.

But if a person has to hire a bail bondsman, also like in Walker's case, the 10 to 30 percent fee bond companies typically charge is not returned, regardless of being found guilty or innocent. 

The United States and the Philippines are the only two nations in the world with a for-profit bail bond industry, reform supporter Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed out. "Since 1964, the federal government's de facto moved away from money bail," Newsom said, "but states are still in the business of money bail."

Lawmakers are still working on the details of how they will change the pretrial system, but Sen. Hertzberg said defendants who are dangerous or a flight risk should still be held until trial. 

"In many other cases, in fact, most defendants don't fall into either of these two categories," Hertzberg said. "Bail often runs into 

the thousands of dollars, even for the most minor charges. Let me tell you why that's so important: most people don't have the financial resources to cover some small amount of money."

A 2015 Federal Reserve study found nearly half of Americans don't have $400 to pay for an emergency expense, let alone tens of thousands of dollars to pay for bail. Like Walker, people facing this unexpected expense have to rely on loved ones to help them out. 

For Walker, being held behind bars for five days meant his 3-year-old son lost the support of his father.

Even while speaking for a few minutes at the press conference, Walker's son interrupted him for his attention:

Walker praised the support of his mother. "For her to take out money, so that I could be there for my family," he said. "So that I could support my family while I'm waiting to go to pre-trial, where the charges were dropped... I was really happy that I was able to get that kind of support, but not everybody has that kind of opportunity."