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.