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Jail Is Often for People Who Can’t Afford Bail. A New Law Would Change That

In one scene from the 1988 gang movie Colors, a cholo played by Trinidad Silva was led to jail for “outstanding tickets.” A friendly cop offered to help raise bail, but the character known as Frog said, “Nah. I got more time than money.”

That seems to be the case for a majority of people who are behind bars in California these days. As much as 63 percent of the state’s county lockup population is awaiting trial or sentencing — and most of them could be free on bail if they could afford it, according to the office of L.A.-area state Sen. Bob Hertzberg.

The lawmaker from Van Nuys teamed up this week with Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland to introduce the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017. It seeks to “safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system,” according to draft language.

Details are still forthcoming, but it’s clear the lawmakers don’t want to see bail getting in the way of freedom for nonviolent suspects who are awaiting trial. “They don’t have the money to get out,” Hertzberg said at a news conference yesterday. “It criminalizes poverty, plain and simple.”

The current bail system disproportionately affects the poor, the working class and people of color: Defendants can post $5,000 of $50,000 bail and go free until trial but will never see that $5,000 back, even if they’re found not guilty. The bail system also has other significant drawbacks.

“You could lose your job because you’re in jail and you can’t show up for work,” Bonta said at the news conference. “You could lose your car. You could lose your children. That is fundamentally wrong to base our justice system on how much money is in your pocket.”

This can be devastating to innocent people, including entire communities in which otherwise productive workers are taken out of the economy. The ACLU, which supports the legislation, says there’s a price to pay for taxpayers, too — namely the $4.5 million a day Californians spend to keep people in jail as they wait for their cases to be resolved.

The civil rights organization says about eight in 10 California jail deaths happen to people waiting to see a judge; suicides account for a quarter of those. Nationally, bail is 35 percent higher for African-American men and 19 percent higher for Latino men compared with white men, the ACLU found.

“Bail often runs into the thousands of dollars even for the most minor charges,” Hertzberg said. “The money bail system wreaks havoc on people’s lives.”

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