While California works to abolish the cash bail system that often punishes poor people disproportionately, one group is trying to fix the problem one prisoner at a time.
The Bail Project, a nonprofit organization that uses donations to bail qualifying people out of jail, joined forces with the public defender’s office in Compton, a Los Angeles suburb that is notorious for crime, and UCLA law students to help individuals at the Compton Courthouse get bail reduction and pretrial release.
So far, the effort has won pretrial release for 11 out of 14 people, all of whom appeared for their court dates. Four of the cases have reached a final settlement, and none of them required prison sentences.
The cost of bail often means that arrestees with access to large sums of cash can return to their lives until their court dates, while those who cannot pay must remain in jail. Judges set bail at their own discretion, and accusations abound of corruption and prejudice leading to unfair costs. According to Robin Steinberg, founder of the Bail Project, defendants can often make better decisions about whether to accept plea bargains if they don’t have the added the pressure of being in jail.
In August 2018, California became the first state to pass a law to abolish cash bail. The law is set to take effect in October. The American Civil Liberties Union and others who supported the idea now say the law as passed would still expose inmates to discrimination because judges will have the power to detain people they consider at risk of fleeing. Counties will develop risk-assessment tools for the judges, but critics say giving them power to decide who stays in prison before the trial is just as bad or worse than bail.
In a New York Times op-ed, David Feige, chairman of the Bronx Freedom Fund, and Steinberg noted another potential problem with the new law: “the imposition of probation-like conditions—mandatory drug testing, electronic surveillance, curfews and reporting requirements—before someone has been convicted.”
A number of bail bonds groups in California oppose the measure, too, and have gathered signatures to force a referendum. If election officers verify the signatures, the law will be put on hold until a statewide vote in 2020.