California's Bail Reform Offers Hope for Broken Justice System

California’s new legislation brings a ray of hope to so many communities that have been negatively impacted by our bail system over the years.

California has a bad reputation when it comes to protecting individual liberty. When local municipalities aren’t busy banning Bird scooters or threatening to arrest people for using plastic straws, however, the state sometimes manages to get things right. And on the criminal justice reform front, California has had an excellent month.

Last week, the State Senate passed legislation addressing the expungement of criminal records for those who received cannabis-related convictions prior to the new recreational marijuana laws. And just this week, California made history when Governor Jerry Brown signed a new bill into law that officially abolished the cash bail requirement for nonviolent suspects awaiting trial.

The Problem with Cash Bail

"Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” Governor Brown said Tuesday as he signed the new bill. Bail reform has been one of the hotter topics of the broader criminal justice reform movement over the last several years and it’s easy to see why.

Imagine not having the few hundred dollars needed to post bail.

As it stands today, the concept of “equality under the law” is nothing more than a great fiction by which we pretend to live. The reality of the situation is that the U.S. justice system is riddled with examples of individuals from poor neighborhoods and communities of color being steamrolled by the state. And nothing demonstrates this quite like our bail system.

Many of us have it in our minds that only the guilty get arrested. But spending a night in jail can happen to just about anyone. All it takes is an expired driver’s license or even a misunderstanding to suddenly find yourself in a horrible situation. Traditionally, when someone is arrested, bail is set and, once paid, the individual is free to go back to their regular life while they await trial.

But imagine not having the few hundred dollars needed to post bail. This may not seem like a lot of money, but for those barely scraping by, a few hundred dollars is a big ask. And picture how devastated you would feel when you realize that none of your friends or family members had the means to help you. Suddenly, this small infraction or misunderstanding that landed you behind bars for the night just turned into a few weeks or, in some cases, months or even years.

This bail system has been continued despite the overwhelming evidence that it is a clear violation of constitutional rights.

Traditionally speaking, when individuals cannot make their bail payments, law enforcement can keep them in custody until their trial. While this is bad enough on its own, what is even worse is that oftentimes, trial dates get delayed. And the individual has almost no recourse when this happens. The infamous Rikers Island prison is with filled with horror stories from inmates who have spent years waiting for their day in court all because they could not post bail and their trials kept being postponed.

This behavior on behalf of law enforcement completely contradicts the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” and it violates the individual’s right to a speedy trial. Nonetheless, this bail system has been continued despite the overwhelming evidence that it is a clear violation of constitutional rights. But as social media and technology have made it easier for individuals to share their stories with the rest of the world, the issue of bail reform has caught the public’s attention. And perhaps the most widely publicized case of this was the tragedy of Kalief Browder.

Kalief Browder

When 16-year-old Kalief Browder was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, he had no idea it would set off a chain of events that would later result in his death.

When he was picked up by police and booked into jail, he was unable to post bail. To make matters worse, even though Browder was completely innocent, something that would later be proven, the prosecution tried to convince him to take a plea deal. If he would just enter a plea of “guilty,” they told him, he would see his day in court and be given a lesser sentence.

Browder had already spent too many years in a system he never belonged in, and it had changed him for the worse.

Maintaining his innocence, he refused the plea and as a result, would spend the next three years in Rikers Island awaiting trial. Rikers is a historically tough and corrupt facility, and young Browder did not come out of the experienced physically or mentally unscathed. In addition to taking brutal beatings from other inmates, during the time he was held—but never actually convicted of the crime he was accused of committing— he spent months in solitary confinement. As most of us understand, this is one of the vilest acts humans can inflict on one another, and young Kalief was never the same after that. And how could he be?

After his situation gained publicity and the courts corrected their error, Browder had already spent too many years in a system he never belonged in, and it had changed him for the worse. And after attempting to battle his demons and make peace with what had happened to him, Browder took his own life at just 22 years old.

Browder’s story is just one of many. But hopefully, California’s new law helps inspire more states to take a serious look at the cash bail system.

California Leads the Way

Under California’s new law, law enforcement would be required to release those suspected of misdemeanors within twelve hours of their arrest. But this is not quite as great as it sounds. California law enforcement will be replacing cash bail requirements with their own “risk-assessment system.” And while the specific details of this system are still forthcoming, it will give officials 24 hours to make their decision. It also allows them to extend this deadline by 12 hours if they deem it necessary. So, in reality, this new law allows California officials to hold individuals for up to 36 hours. It may not be ideal, but seeing as cash bail was essentially “indefinite detention,” this is a huge step in the right direction.

California’s new legislation brings a ray of hope to communities that have been negatively impacted by our bail system.

For serious offenders—specifically violent offenders— the new risk-assessment system would not apply and law enforcement would still be allowed to detain suspects until their trial. This is still a violation of “innocent until proven guilty,” but again, this is still major progress on California’s behalf.

In fact, the only real downside to California’s new law is that it will not go into effect until October 2019. This may only be a year from now, but cash bail requirements are routinely harming individuals. It’s a shame that more lives could potentially be ruined in the meantime.

Regardless, California’s new legislation brings a ray of hope to so many communities that have been negatively impacted by our bail system over the years. And individuals from all sides of the political spectrum are excited about what this might mean for criminal justice reform as a whole. In fact, the new legislation has been met with positivity by just about everyone except the bail bond industry, who stands to lose the most in this fight.

Hopefully, California’s new law will help prevent future tragedies like Kalief Browder by incorporating more “justice” into our justice system.

More by Brittany Hunter

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