In California’s money bail system, people brought to jail on charges of a misdemeanor or felony offence are required to pay money to secure release as they await trial. What that means in practice is that people with money get out of jail, and people without it don’t. But sitting in jail isn’t like waiting at the DMV – jail is, more often than not, a deeply traumatizing experience. Sometimes even deadly.
The amount of money a person can access shouldn’t determine whether the state gets to inflict irreparable harm on them via incarceration. That’s why Western Center supports Proposition 25 to end money bail in California.
Here’s how money bail works…
People who can pay the full bail amount pay directly to the court, which averages around $50,000, and they get it all back when they show up for court. People who can’t pay the full bail fall into two categories: (1) people who can scrape together enough, sometimes through friends and family, to pay a bail agent for a bail bond — usually about 10 percent of the bail amount; and (2) people who don’t have or know anyone with 10 percent of the bail amount and are held in jail until trial. It’s estimated that on any given day, nearly 50,000 Californians end up in this second category — accused of a crime, not convicted, but still sitting in jail because they can’t afford to pay.
For people with just enough to purchase a bail bond, even when they return to court to face their charges, they don’t get their money back since bail bonds are usually nonrefundable. That’s true even when charges are dropped or a person is determined to be innocent.
A Yes vote on Proposition 25 will end money bail in California, and restore $6 billion to low-wealth California communities that are preyed upon by the bail industry. Ending money bail will remove judicial discretion for people charged with most misdemeanors and require that they be sent home in under 13 hours, which we hope will encourage closer examination of who is arrested for misdemeanors, and whether certain misdemeanors should exist in the first place (for example, being “boisterous” on a bus can be a misdemeanor in California).
These are difficult conversations to have in California’s capitol, where $3 million in bail industry profits were used to help elect legislators who oppose not only repealing money bail, but also the reduction of pre-trial detention and the carceral state. Because of that, the legislature is squeamish on this issue, so Prop 25 could be the last opportunity California has for a long time to end money bail and work toward a more just system.
The $6 billion dollar California Money Bail industry preys on low-income communities, and impacts Black and Brown people and communities most. Nationally, Black people are detained at a rate five times higher than white people,[i] and Black defendants are less likely to be released on their own recognizance than white defendants.[ii] Black defendants ages 18 through 29 also receive higher bail amounts than any other group.[iii] It’s all made worse because Black Americans have A LOT less wealth to begin with, so Black people charged with a crime — whether a misdemeanor or a felony — are much more likely to have to stay in jail while waiting for trial, which increases the likelihood of conviction or going into debt with a bail agent.
In California, the billions of dollars the bail industry takes from people with little to no wealth translates to money people can’t spend on basic needs, education, health, or any other resource to get out of poverty. What’s worse, since people often borrow from friends and family to pay their bond, it can create conflict and tension within families, complicating already difficult situations. Sometimes, families have to put up their home, if they have one, for collateral to a bail agent to secure freedom for their loved one, which undermines homeownership and asset building in low-income communities of color.
For people without enough wealth or access for bail, and even with a bail bond, a stay in jail can be lengthy. It should surprise no one that jail is a dangerous and inhospitable place, where people endure sexual assault and other forms of abuse from guards and other people who are incarcerated, and where maintaining one’s health, including mental health, is difficult, if not impossible. Additionally, people held in jail while awaiting trial are more likely to have immigration officials called on them. But that’s not all: other life-altering consequences experienced by people in jail waiting for their trial include losing their homes, their cars, their children or other people they care for, their jobs, their health and so much more. As a result, many plead guilty for crimes they didn’t commit just so they can leave jail rather than wait for trial.
The money bail system is used in many ways that perversely perpetuates the criminalization of poverty. Prosecutors often ask judges to detain individuals with a high bail as leverage to convince people with low-incomes to enter a plea bargain.[iv] To give a sense of how big the problem is, in 2006, 96 percent of convictions were the result of guilty pleas — only four percent of convictions resulted from actual trials.[v] People incarcerated while awaiting trial are more likely to be convicted (even when innocent); receive harsher sentences, including more time in jail or prison; face injury or contract a serious (and costly) disease; and are more likely to return to the criminal justice system in the future.[vi]
Some critics of Proposition 25 are concerned that too much power will be placed within the computerized risk assessment tools that are to replace money bail. We are concerned about that too, which is why we sponsored Senate Bill 36 last year to require race and equity data to be collected, shared with the public, and monitored to mitigate racial bias in each risk assessment tool. Between the requirements set in Proposition 25 and SB 36, California will have some of the most robust protections against racially-biased decision making for pre-trial detention in the country, and we will be the first to end all monetary conditions of pre-trial release. Wealth is one of the most racist algorithms that exists in America, and one of the most fixed. Proposition 25 is an essential step forward in making our pre-trial decisions less racially biased.
We know that even after Proposition 25 passes, we have a lot of work to do to ensure it is implemented with diligence and equity, and that we continue to build a more just pre-trial system that treats everyone as innocent until proven guilty. Western Center is committed to this work in strong partnership with the system-impacted-person led organizations leading the way.
Please join us and leaders across the state in voting Yes on Proposition 25. Go to https://yesoncaprop25.com/ for more information and read the text of the proposed law. Video panels are also available on the subject: Prop 25 Community Forum Recording (SEIU); Yes on Prop 25 (Anti-Recidivism Coalition); Yes on Prop 25 (Yes on 25 Campaign).
[i]JUSTICE POL’Y INST., supra note XX, at 15.
[ii] JOHN WOOLDREDGE, DISTINGUISHING RACE EFFECTS ON PRETRIAL RELEASE AND SENTENCING DECISIONS, JUSTICE QUARTERLY, 29 (2012).
[iii] JOHN WOOLDREDGE, supra note 9, at 29.
[iv] JUSTICE POL’Y INST., 25
[v] Cal.STATE COURT PROCESSING, FELONY DEFENDANTS IN LARGE URBAN COUNTIES REPORTS 1992-2006
[vi] ARPIT GUPTA, CHRISTOPHER HANSMAN, & ETHAN FRENCHMAN, THE HEAVY COSTS OF HIGH BAIL: EVIDENCE FROM JUDGE RANDOMIZATION 2 (2016); LAURA & JOHN ARNOLD FOUND, PRETRIAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE RESEARCH 3 (2013).