Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Beyond bail

Compassion | California struggles to reform a broken system
by Charissa Koh
Posted 1/16/19, 04:12 pm

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.

Associated Press/Photo by Dan Wagner/Sarasota Herald-Tribune Associated Press/Photo by Dan Wagner/Sarasota Herald-Tribune Felons register to vote at the Sarasota County, Fla., Supervisor of Elections Office on Jan. 8.

Voting rights

As of Jan. 8, 1.4 million ex-felons in Florida can register to vote, thanks to a state constitutional amendment approved by two-thirds of Florida voters in November. Felons convicted of murder or sex offenses, however, remain ineligible.

The change could bolster the Democratic Party in the swing state: A large proportion of the ex-felons are African-American, a demographic that leans blue.

State election officials began accepting registrations from ex-felons this week, but it’s unclear when they will get official clearance to vote, because newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for lawmakers to clarify the rules. Opponents accuse him of stalling since municipal elections begin in February and the legislative session starts in March. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by David Swanson/The Philadelphia Inquirer (pool) Associated Press/Photo by David Swanson/The Philadelphia Inquirer (pool) Johnny Bobbitt during a hearing at the Burlington County Courthouse in Mount Holly, N.J., on Dec. 14

Jailed

A homeless man accused in a GoFundMe scam is in jail for failing to appear in court Jan. 8. Police say Johnny Bobbitt, 35, violated the conditions of his pre-trial release. Prosecutors charged Bobbitt, Katelyn McClure, and Mark D’Amico in November on suspicion of inventing a sympathetic story to raise money through a crowdfunding campaign. The three claimed Bobbitt helped McClure when she ran out of gas on the freeway. After GoFundMe fees, the couple claimed $367,000, money they said would give Bobbitt a new start. Instead, prosecutors say McClure and D’Amico gave Bobbit $75,000 and spent the rest on luxury cars and gambling. Police arrested the couple and Bobbit for conspiracy and theft and released them, pending their court date. —C.C.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.

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