What Is The Purpose Of Bail? It Depends On Who You Talk To

While discussing the California bail system, a Santa Clara County district attorney said, “It’s just so difficult to get guilty pleas from defendants who are NOT in custody.” (Emphasis added) These statements, along with many others I’ve heard over the course of my research, serve to reinforce common misunderstandings about the bail system. These misunderstandings, in turn, have misdirected conversations about what the U.S. bail system is intended to accomplish.

Immediately after hearing the district attorney make this statement, I thought to myself, “if a defendant is truly guilty, a fast and easy guilty plea would certainly save the county a lot of resources and it would be in the best interest of the community because it would ensure speedy justice for the victim.” However, a fast and easy plea deal is not beneficial to everyone when we consider the effects of detaining individuals prior to trial.

Over 62% of county jail inmates are NON-CONVICTED individuals. This means that over half of the jail population is made up of people who have not yet been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Individuals accused of a misdemeanor spend more than 30 days in jail before they are tried and either found not guilty or convicted. When we consider all of this, it’s reasonable to assume that many individuals who are wrongfully accused may be coerced into a guilty plea simply because they are desperate to get out of jail.

District attorneys are charged with proving an accused individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Negotiating plea deals is also an important and necessary part of their job. Therefore, keeping defendants in custody is beneficial to this part of their work because it provides an incentive for the accused to agree. This however, has absolutely nothing to do with the purposes of the U.S. bail system. Stated another way, the U.S. bail system is not in place to keep a defendant in custody for the sake of helping district attorneys do their jobs. In this post, I will provide commentary on other misconceptions I’ve found during my research.

To date, I have uncovered and corrected some of the misleading information available to the public about the U.S. bail system in an attempt to foster public discourse in a meaningful way. In a previous post, I took it upon myself to provide readers with a thorough understanding of the term “bail.” Unsurprisingly, when I read a publication that uses misleading information to further spread the belief that bail must always involve money, or that it should accomplish anything other than what its meant to accomplish, I am quick to respond with complete and accurate information.

On November 1, 2012, the Golden State Bail Agents Association published a testimonial written by one of their attorneys, Mr. Albert W. Ramirez. Mr. Ramirez’s testimony, while not technically wrong, is misleading and demands some elaboration. This testimony was made before the California General Assembly. In this post, I don’t intend to disprove Mr. Ramirez and I don’t intend for this post to serve as a response to his statements. I only cite to his testimony because it provides an illustration of the common misconceptions I’ve found during my research.

In this post, I will supply that elaboration by offering an accurate statement of the issue at hand and then following with an explanation of how the statements made by Mr. Ramirez are misleading. I don’t urge readers to read or accept Mr. Ramirez’s testimony because I have taken issue with the way in which it misleads readers. Further, it is not necessary to read the testimony as I’ve included the relevant statements for my commentary.

Myth: Money bail opponents think bail is too expensive.

Truth: Advocates for bail system reform seek to reduce the number of detained pretrial defendants in order to achieve a fair and effective system.

Mr. Ramirez maintains that, “California’s commercial bail system has been under attack by the ACLU” and that the “ACLU’s primary criticism of commercial bail is that it’s too expensive.” (Page 1) First and foremost, “the attack” as he calls it is not necessarily on the commercial bail system, as the ACLU and other groups have clearly indicated that their concerns are directly associated with the entire bail system as a whole. On numerous occasions, the ACLU has specifically been critical of the money bail system for the detrimental effects it has on the poor. For example, a dangerous but wealthy individual may be released from custody by paying money bail while a person who does not pose a danger to society may be held simply because they cannot afford to do the same. Both of these scenarios are bad for obvious reasons and have absolutely nothing to do with the commercial bail system.

Further, concerns over the U.S. bail system stem from the large numbers of individuals currently incarcerated. While the ACLU has indeed urged states to pass more stringent regulations for regulating commercial bail, it’s important for readers to be aware that stringent regulation is not an attack on the commercial bail industry, but rather a means for protecting the rights of the indigent, who happen to be the clients of private commercial bail companies. Some states such as New Jersey have already taken steps towards this.

Myth: The effectiveness of any bail system is best measured by failure to appear rates.

Truth: The bail system is in place to both ensure a defendant’s appearance at court and ensure public safety.

Many commercial bail supporters (including Mr. Ramirez) misguidedly rely on the failure to appear (FTA) rates to argue that commercial bail is much more effective than other forms of release such as Own Recognizance release (OR). David Ball at the Santa Clara University School of Law illustrates why FTA is not a great measure of effectiveness. For the purposes of this post, the key takeaway from Professor Ball’s article is the fact that while the bail system is in place to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court, that’s not all it’s meant to accomplish and ensure.

Mr. Ramirez correctly states, “Our criminal justice system cannot function if defendants fail to appear for their court proceedings,” but he completely disregards the fact that these failure to appear rates do not capture the whole picture. (Page 1) For one thing, a defendant may be returned to custody due to being rearrested (possibly on different charges). When that occurs, there is virtually no chance that he will miss any court dates as he is in custody and the jail officials will simply surrender him to the court on his given court date. Mr. Ramirez, like many other commercial bail proponents, completely ignores the fact that the justice system is also meant to guarantee a defendant’s release under the least restrictive conditions and ensure public safety.

Myth: Commercial bail is a necessary component of the criminal justice system.

Truth: There are many alternatives to commercial bail such as releasing people on “bail” without the need for bail bonds.

The effectiveness of a pretrial release method must include considerations of both the defendant’s likelihood to appear for their scheduled court date and their threat to public safety. As already mentioned, bail is meant to ensure that a defendant appears at his court date. This requires the court to impose certain conditions upon a defendant’s release in order to ensure that he shows up to his court date. When determining bail terms and conditions, a judge is required to consider whether the defendants pose a risk to public safety.

Mr. Ramirez cites to “The most comprehensive study ever done on bail” in an attempt to undercut the entire purpose of bail by simply focusing on failure to appear. (Page 3) The testimony ignores the fact that pretrial release determinations vary from state to state with regards to criteria used and the specific conditions of release. In some states, defendants are much more likely to be released with little to no consideration of their threat to public safety or their likelihood to appear in court. This is important because a pretrial system that considers the threat to public safety in their determination for release will likely provide a much more thorough interview and as such likely to release fewer defendants.

Mr. Ramirez states that “A risk assessment tool is merely a questionnaire consisting of a list of factors that have been shown to correlate one way or another with criminality or flight risk.” and then proceeds to question the validity of such findings. (Page 6) Specifically noteworthy is the fact that Mr. Ramirez’s fails to acknowledge that some jurisdiction, such as Santa Clara, have a comprehensive system in which defendants are thoroughly interviewed and the determination about their release is made after a long process.

In Santa Clara County, federal and state constitutional protections from excessive bail are often successfully implemented through pretrial release programs.

One key issue in Mr. Ramirez’s testimony is the fact that many of his statements rely on the idea or assumption that people have “the right to bail.” As previously stated, “bail” refers to all types of pretrial release, not just those made in exchange for money. (Page 3) The protections and rights prescribed by the federal and California constitutions do not guarantee that an individual is entitled to any specific type of release from custody. In fact, some defendants are not entitled to any kind of release at all.

It is certainly true that many California residents, along with many other U.S. residents, have money bail set, and that they often use commercial bail companies when they cannot afford to pay the full amount of money required by the court. Thus, while many residents use commercial bail companies to secure their release from custody, it is not true that “bail” is usually implemented through commercial bail companies. Courts not only release defendants by setting an amount of money that must be paid by the defendant to the court—they also release defendants on certain conditions, or simply cite and release the individual with a promise to return to court.

More importantly, protections from excessive bail are embedded in the Constitution of the United States as well as in many state constitutions. Unlike the misguided statement I quoted at the beginning of this post, these protections are specifically designed to protect defendants from entering into coerced or false guilty pleas. Also, contrary to popular belief, this protection does not grant an individual the right to pay a bail agent a large sum of money in exchange for his freedom.

This protection simply grants an individual the right to be released from custody, while he awaits his trial, under the least restrictive conditions. I mention the term “popular belief” because this is yet another misguided assumption that a lot of Americans (myself included) have been led to believe by statements from officials in high positions (like the district attorney), news coverage, and other popular media.

Why does this all matter? Misunderstandings about the U.S. bail system and the protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment have limited conversations about how this system can be improved both to ensure community safety and a defendants appearance in court. Money bail has become the norm and many have accepted it as the only system simply because it’s all we have known. These limitations have blinded most people from truly appreciating the fact that money bail does not accomplish any of its goals. These limitations have also allowed many to ignore the fact that there are alternatives to bail. A meaningful conversation about bail reform is long overdue and it must begin with accurate information.

 

 

 

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Reclassification as a Means for Integration: The Positives of Prop 47

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If you are in jail, imagine having your prior felony reclassified as a misdemeanor so that you no longer face six years in prison for stealing $10 worth of merchandise (anecdote to be shared below). Or, if you are released in society, imagine having your criminal record adjusted so you are no longer barred from receiving federal welfare, student grants, or medical care. (PDF pages 9-10). You also are no longer excluded from employment in care facilities, including child-care jobs, and you might no longer face automatic disqualification if potential employers discover your conviction records. (Although technically it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an individual based on an individual’s criminal record, it certainly still happens). Further, if you are an undocumented immigrant, a parent, and facing deportation, your adjusted criminal record may qualify you for protection under Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). (PDF page 5). Also, if you are undocumented, facing deportation, and entered the United States before you were sixteen, your adjusted criminal record may qualify you for protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). (PDF page 5).

All four groups of people described above did not have these freedoms or protections prior to Prop 47’s passage. In addition to reducing prison and jail populations along with infrastructural costs, Prop 47 strove to change certain individuals’ felony records, improving the social and financial status of these individuals who had previously committed non-violent drug possession or petty theft crimes. Reclassification is not instantaneous, but it helps nonviolent offenders receive the financial support and employment opportunities necessary to become more fully integrated in society.

Continue reading “Reclassification as a Means for Integration: The Positives of Prop 47”

Privatization of Money Bail

In a previous post, I described the basic structure of for profit bail and addressed potential concerns with the privatization of this section of criminal justice. This post will address whether private bail agents save taxpayers’ money, increase efficiency and innovation in pretrial release, allow policymakers to focus on policy instead of procedure, streamline and downsize government, and, for their customers, whether they increase flexibility of service, quality of service, and the appearance rate in court.

The best approach to this analysis is to look at the service needed, the service actually provided, and the comparative costs and benefits of the private system against public systems. (Here’s an alternative analysis concluding that financial remuneration for pretrial detainees is a preferred solution). The service needed is simple. We presume the innocence of criminal defendants and, in order to not deprive them of liberty without any proven reason, we release the defendant pending trial. The public wants assurances that the released defendant will: 1) not endanger public safety during pretrial release and 2) show up to court (or prevent a failure to appear, “FTA”). Money bail only addresses one of those needs – the failure to appear, discussed below. For the sake of argument, and because the bail industry claims to protect public safety, I address public safety first. Continue reading “Privatization of Money Bail”

The Price of Avoiding Incarceration

In my previous posts, I have discussed the general stages of the justice system, the fines and fees associated with the pretrial stage as well as the fines and fees associated with being in custody. To complete the discussion regarding the fines and fees associated with the life cycle of a criminal defendant’s journey through the justice system, I will be focusing on how money affects a person once they have been sentenced and are eligible for diversion programs. This post will illustrate how money is typically a factor in determining whether a person serves their punishment in out-of-custody diversion programs and the ramifications that this practice has.

Alternative sentencing is the general umbrella term that is used for different avenues of punishment rather than incarceration. The goal of alternative sentencing is to identify and use effective sanctions that address an offender’s underlying problem in efforts to advance public safety and the chances of reoffending. Alternative sentencing is similar to deferred entry of judgment pursuant to California Penal Code sections 1000.-1000.6. Deferred entry of judgment for adults is a special drug and alcohol education program that; offenders who commit certain drug crimes can have their charges dismissed upon completion of the program.

Santa Clara County frequently utilizes both the Sentencing Alternative Program, Inc. and the Sheriff Weekend Work Program when allowing individuals to serve alternative sentences in lieu of jail time. Both programs highlight that the programs benefit the community, the offender, and the state since the offenders pay to participate. Programs like these can be incredibly beneficial for an offender since they allow time to be served on the weekends or nights, allowing the participants the ability to keep their jobs, homes, and maintain family ties. However, these benefits come at cost. For example, the Sentencing Alternative Program charges, along with various miscellaneous fees, a sliding fee ranging from $35-$250 based on the number of hours an offender is assigned to complete. The cost to participate in the Sherriff’s Work Program is not publically available, however, their site does relay that the program incurs no cost to Santa Clara Citizens or the Department of Corrections as participants pay a fee.

The imposition of these fees puts indigent and poor defendants at a disadvantage: even if they are eligible for the program on the basis of their sentences, they will not be able to participate because of inability to pay. This disadvantage does not fall solely on those who have no money, but also those who are struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves (and their families) while working multiple jobs. The inability to serve alternate sentences can have detrimental effects on these populations as jail time would likely cause them to lose their jobs and create difficulty securing employment upon release.

These alternate sentencing programs help offenders avoid jail and prison time, allowing them to escape the very system that some argue creates more crime. They can also be beneficial for the community, public safety, reducing recidivism and even the fiscal budget. However, these benefits should be tangible for all those eligible, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. Otherwise, our system is effectively handing out harsher punishments for those who are poor.

Policy

The nation’s current criminal justice system is punishing poor and low-income individuals at a disproportionate rate. Not only are people being thrown into jails and prisons because they cannot afford to pay various fines and fees, but these same people are facing a much harsher time in custody than their affluent counterparts.

There have been numerous studies to show that there is a correlation between the time an individual spends in custody and the likelihood that he will commit another crime. Imprisoning people based on a failure to pay and racking up fines and fees against them while they are in custody is not benefiting society in any way: incarceration is costly and the tremendous debt that people are incurring is almost never repaid. Moving to an individualized punishment system similar to Finland, where fines and fees are assessed based on ability to pay and income, would not only help save taxpayers’ money, but it would be a system that actually treats individuals fairly.

 

Excessive Bail, Equal Protection, and the Plight of the Homeless

The hardships imposed by the cash bail system fall most heavily on the poor. It is difficult for poor people to pay bail or even raise the 10% that is a standard deposit for bail bond companies. This can result in an individual remaining in jail until their court date, or even until their case is resolved or goes to trial. Depending on the severity of the charges, this can take months or even a year or more. Time spent in custody can cause these people to miss work and possibly lose their job. They can potentially lose more than that. The cost of living is high in Santa Clara County and many people are only a paycheck or two away from losing their homes.

For those who are homeless, additional layers of difficulty arise. In my research for this blog post, I was unable to find statistics concerning the arrest and incarceration of homeless individuals specifically but I was able to gain insight about the unique challenges they face from legal professionals, case law, and homeless individuals themselves.

First, it is helpful to define what we mean by “homeless.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires all communities that receive federal funds for issues relating to homelessness to compile biennial reports, which are then integrated into a summary report produced by HUD. All these reports use the federal definition of homelessness (PDF, page 14). This definition includes those people living in transitional housing or shelters, or those whose primary nighttime residence is a public or private place not ordinarily used as such.

According to the 2015 HUD report, San Jose had the ninth-highest population of homeless of all reporting cities in the nation (PDF, page 15). The city had the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless at 70.6% (PDF, page 16). This is a substantial population and because of the way homeless individuals are marginalized in our society, they frequently run afoul of the justice system. For instance, the homeless are often arrested or cited for so-called “quality of life” crimes. These include crimes such as vagrancy, littering and public urination to name only a few. They are the types of crimes that the homeless may commit just by existing.

Continue reading “Excessive Bail, Equal Protection, and the Plight of the Homeless”