Rewriting Inequity: Policy Recommendations for CA PC 1305

So far this semester, I have written about the text of California Penal Code Section 1305. Most of that time has been taken up with discussing the problems with bail forfeiture and exoneration that arise from the way the law is written and implemented. In this final installment, I will address two problems I have raised over the last two posts: (1) affordability of bail and the bail schedule; and (2) amending PC 1305 so that it does not favor bail bond companies. By way of solutions to those problems, I will offer some policy recommendations for the California bail framework as we move into a time where the state-level bail system is getting some much-needed attention from criminal justice reformers.

Bail has come to mean a lot of different things. However, at its base, bail is simply the mechanism by which we attempt to guarantee the defendant comes to his or her court dates, while, at the same time, maximizing public safety and minimizing restraints on a defendant’s liberty. Since money bail is not working toward these intended purposes, it is time we get rid of it. There are other forms of pretrial release that do a much better job of getting the defendant to come to court when he or she is supposed to, and enable real criminal justice professionals to keep track of the defendant.

In general, the best way to fix the bail system in California is to abolish money bail in favor of a combination of preventive detention and pretrial release with supervision (first paragraph of page) similar to the structures in place in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey. However, that would require a complete overhaul of judges, jails, and a thriving quasi-insurance industry (bail bond companies). Since that is both unlikely to take root quickly and outside of the topics I have addressed so far, this post will focus on possible policy solutions and recommendations for PC 1305 specifically.

No One Can Afford the Better Option: Cash Bail and the Bail Schedule

Cash bail – as compared to commercial surety bail, or bail bonds – is always reserved as an option for defendants, but it is rarely taken. Few defendants can afford to deposit the full bail amount with the court, because the scheduled bail amounts are so high. This is especially true in the case of individuals who are accused of misdemeanors, where bail is most often set according to the bail schedule, usually between $1,000 and $10,000.

If the system is meant to ensure the defendant comes to trial – which it is – then the amounts should be high enough to matter, but should still take into account (1) the defendant’s ability to pay, along with (2) potential risks to the public’s safety if that person gets out. With those as the two chief considerations in setting bail, judges can tailor bail amounts to individual defendants enough to be effective, while not inflicting prison time upon them for their lack of assets. Conversely, the rich will no longer have access to freedom while the poor do not. Today, so long as the person has not been charged with a capital offense, for which there would be no bail, rich defendants can get out of jail almost immediately by buying a bail bond, regardless of how dangerous they are to the public.

As the Santa Clara County website says, “[t]he Bail Schedule is the presumptive bail in many, but not all statutory offenses.” Judges are permitted to depart from the bail schedule but almost never do, since they really have no reason to do so. It’s already been agreed to by a majority of the judges in the county, so it comes prepared with a stamp of approval. However, judges can and should take advantage of that discretion in setting bail to alleviate foundational problems ranging from jail overcrowding to the simple fact that pretrial detention only affects people negatively (PDF page 3-4), especially low-risk defendants. That is, keeping people in jail, discerning which defendants are not a public safety risk and will most likely come back for their court dates can be, and has been, accurately done. At the very least, if money bail has to continue being part of our criminal justice system, then defendants that we can safely let out should be able to get out of jail.

Get Rid of the Bail Schedule

Getting rid of the Bail Schedule altogether is the most efficient way to discern which defendants are either flight risks or dangerous, so that judges have to make individualized determinations, and will hopefully choose to take advantage of risk assessment tools. One logical counterargument to that point is that judges just don’t have the time to consider each defendant’s unique circumstances, so the Bail Schedule is simply a creature of convenience that helps the criminal justice system run smoothly. The obvious response is that we are dealing with a person’s freedom, as well as their future. The Bail Schedule lets judges use it as a default, since it is the “presumptive bail,” but the standard amounts are too high for many defendants. Thus, adherence to the Bail Schedule results in unnecessary pretrial detention. Any jail time is bad, but unnecessary jail time is considerably worse. As an Arnold Foundation study found, “low-risk defendants who were detained pretrial for more than 24 hours were more likely to commit new crimes not only while their cases are pending, but also years later” (PDF, page 4: “The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention”). Clearly, we hope that criminal justice is both making society safer and better generally – part of which is lowering crime.

If jail time is causing an increase in crime, then the criminal justice system – legislators, judges, and prosecutors – should concentrate on alternatives to jail time. As an added benefit, jails will become less crowded and, hopefully, get back on track by inflicting pretrial detention only on the people who cannot be freed safely. Additionally, the county will save money. It costs the county, and therefore taxpayers, $204 per day for a single inmate (PDF, page 22) to stay in Santa Clara’s Main Jail pretrial. The cost of pretrial supervision – for those defendants who require supervision – is estimated at $15 per day (PDF, page 22). Some defendants don’t even need to be supervised.

If the argument for the Bail Schedule is convenience, and replacing that convenience for a different kind of convenience could bring about all of the positive effects above, then it seems like a worthwhile trade. Now I’ll turn to a discussion of how to remedy some of the problems with PC 1305 from the legislative side.

Rewriting PC 1305

Throughout my posts in the last couple of months, and most of the other posts on this blog, there are a few common threads, one of which is: bail bond companies are getting off too easy. One of the many reasons that is true is that PC 1305 is written in a way that favors bail bond companies, so the entire process – from getting a defendant out of jail to when they go to trial, or don’t – is written to give bail bond companies as many chances as possible to make money and dodge liability.

Stop Construing PC 1305 “in Favor of the Surety”

One of the most glaring problems with the way PC 1305 functions is that courts are actually required to construe the law in bail bond companies’ favor. As far back as 1975, in a case called People v. Wilshire Insurance Company, and as recently as 2015, in People v. United States Fire Insurance Company, courts have insisted on statements such as “[t]he Penal Code sections governing forfeiture of bail bonds must be strictly construed in favor of the surety to avoid the harsh results of forfeiture.” In People v. US Fire Insurance Company, the court explained further that, “strict construction of bail forfeiture statutes compels the court to protect the surety.” Even if the law were not written in favor of bail bond companies, it would still be treated as if it was. Why?

One explanation is that “the law traditionally disfavors forfeitures and this disfavor extends to forfeiture of bail.” People v. American Contractors Indemnity Co. However, bail bond companies are not traditional companies – they are little insurance companies who are guarded by huge insurance companies, which end up playing a critical role in the criminal justice system, in pursuit of profit. Because judges often – if not always – rely on the Bail Schedule, bail agents end up making the determination of which defendants get out of jail and which defendants stay in custody without regard for public safety. Their motivation is profit, so the defendants who get out are the ones who can pay for it, and who have high enough bail set to be profitable.

Bail bond companies and their agents should have higher risk of forfeiting their potential monetary gain, because they are responsible for both keeping the public safe by not letting out dangerous criminals, and getting those out who should be out, and then ensuring they go to trial. The stakes are much higher than for, say, car insurance, where the risk and reward are purely financial. In the bail context, the bond companies’ risks are financial, but the same risk for an individual is his or her liberty, which should hold a much higher price.

185 Days is Too Long

When a defendant fails to appear, the bond company has 185 days to find them and bring them back before the bond company loses any money. They can also attempt to extend that period by 180 days if they file a motion with the court pursuant to 1305.4. Bail bond companies exist to get people out of jail pretrial, with the promise to bring them back for trial. If any other person (or entity) in any other kind of job failed to do the single thing they were supposed to, it would be crazy to give them either 6 months or a year to finish the task they were supposed to have done in the first place, and then pay them for it.

Bail bond companies need to keep better track of defendants so that they don’t fail to appear. If a bonded defendant does fail to appear, the bail bond company should not still make money. Thus, the bond should be actually forfeited when the defendant fails to appear. Or, at least, whatever the bond company got from the defendant should go to the court. To bring it full circle, allowing defendants to give a deposit to the court in cash, the same way they would pay a bail bondsman, would solve this whole problem. Then the defendant has a reason to come to court, and no one makes money for being terrible at his or her job.

Rearrest Should Not Equal Exoneration

When a defendant is out on bond and is rearrested, the bond is exonerated and the surety is freed of all obligations. Bail bond companies purport to protect public safety. However, almost 30% of people in Santa Clara County that bail bondsmen bail out of jail are rearrested. When a bail bond company bails out a defendant who is likely to commit another crime, it endangers the public. Thus, when a defendant commits a crime while out on bond, as more than a quarter of Santa Clara defendants post bond do, the bail bond company should forfeit either the entire bond or at least the portion they charged the defendant.

Conclusion:

There are many problems with PC 1305, but there are also many open avenues for solutions. Reform can come from judges by using discretion in setting bail, so that defendants get individualized assessments, even if it means that they see fewer defendants per day. The legislature should carefully consider the effects of PC 1305 according to the above critiques, to make sure the statute is bringing about its intention; not just benefitting huge companies making a safe investment in someone’s freedom, or incarceration. Finally, prosecutors can mitigate some of the damage 1305 does by not asking for higher bail or defaulting to the bail schedule in cases where ability to pay is a factor, and by giving more credence to tools-based risk assessments used by Pretrial Services.

The Socioeconomic Consequences of Being Accused of a Crime

The leading arguments in favor of restricting bail and pretrial release are that those who are accused of crimes pose a danger to society and will fail to appear at their court date. Former Attorney General Holder, the highest ranking legal officer in the country, recently noted that non-violent defendants “could be released . . . and allowed to pursue or maintain employment, and participate in educational opportunities and their normal family lives—without risk of endangering their fellow citizens or fleeing from justice.” Yet two-thirds of the 500,000 un-sentenced individuals currently awaiting trial in jail are low risk, meaning they are identified as “posing no significant risk to themselves or the community with a likelihood of reappearance at subsequent court dates.” These “low risk” individuals, when forced to remain in jail due to their financial status, face very high risks to their socioeconomic status. The purpose of this post is to explore the socioeconomic consequences pretrial detainees are forced to endure due to their incarceration.

The Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that an arrest is an act that can “seriously interfere with the defendant’s liberty, whether he is free on bail or not, and that may disrupt his employment, drain his financial resources, curtail his associations, subject him to public obloquy, and create anxiety in him, his family, and friends.” It logically follows that that excessive, and even short term, pretrial detention can make these problems exponentially worse. Continue reading “The Socioeconomic Consequences of Being Accused of a Crime”

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”

ARRESTED FOR A MISDEMEANOR?

This semester, the Criminal Law and Policy class researched the way bail operates in Santa Clara County. The class discovered that individuals that have been arrested and taken to the main jail do not have access to information about own recognizance release during the booking process.  While there are advertisements for commercial bail companies, there is nothing posted in “the tank” to explain to people that they might not need to pay to be released before the conclusion of their case.  I wrote about the potential problems this could cause for people accused of a misdemeanor crime who are entitled to own recognizance release absent an express finding from the court that other terms of release should be imposed.

After learning about this problem, my colleague Ruby Renteria and I decided to create a document that would explain to individuals their potential eligibility for citation and release or own recognizance release that could be posted in the tank.  We made the sheet below available to the Bail and Release Work Group and it was circulated during their last meeting.  We hope that this marks the beginning of the process to make this sheet available to the individuals in need of this information.

Click here to view the Own Recognizance Release Information Sheet.

Lose your job or lose your freedom?

Imagine that you were arrested on an alleged misdemeanor offense and the court has allowed your release from custody on a promise to appear (own-recognizance) to your scheduled court date. You work full-time, are the primary or only breadwinner of your family, and you live on a low-wage paycheck-to-paycheck basis. You’ve told your boss in advance that you have a mandatory court proceeding to attend and, based on that conversation, you now fear that your boss will fire you if you miss that day of work to attend court. As the day of your court hearing approaches, you must make a critical decision between attending court or attending work. No matter which one you choose, the consequences for not choosing the other are grave; if you miss work you will potentially get fired and struggle with meeting basic life necessities for you and your family, if you miss court an arrest warrant will likely be issued against you along with additional charges pursuant to your failure to appear (FTA).

The Problem

There is no empirical data in California that demonstrates how often individuals fail to appear as a result of fearing employer retaliations. There is also no empirical data to show how often individuals are terminated after they have missed work to attend a court hearing. This data may be difficult to obtain for two reasons: first, employer motives are challenging to track, and second, there is the possibility that employees do not tell their employers about their court dates for a variety of reasons.

A survey in Nebraska of about 8,000 misdemeanants from different counties found that “the highest-rated reasons for non-appearance reflect very practical, instrumental factors (e.g., “had scheduling [or work] conflicts.”) (pdf, go to page 24). The Bail and Release Work Group of Santa Clara County stated that individuals miss court appearances “for many reasons unrelated to a desire to avoid justice—including inability to miss work” (pdf, go to page 20). From both my personal observations in court and my interviews with professionals in the criminal justice system in Santa Clara County, it appears common for defendants to miss their court date out of fear that they will lose their job for missing work. (Class/personal interview with Public Defender Ms. Panteha Saban, 4/13/16. Email interview with pretrial service agent, 4/15/16.) So what if there was legal protection that would prohibit an employer from retaliating against an individual who gave advance notice and missed work in order to attend a mandatory criminal court proceeding? Continue reading “Lose your job or lose your freedom?”

Immigration Bond: Making Freedom an Expensive Commodity for Some Immigrants

 

Immigration bond, in theory, serves the same purpose as “bail” in that it helps procure the release of a detainee. It is essentially a contract between ICE and a person (or the bond company posting the bond) to ensure the release of an individual. The release is made in exchange for security given that that individual will appear in court or any other proceeding at a later date. But unlike bail, there are no constitutional safeguards against excessive bond.

Before I explain how immigration bond is set and what are some of the major issues surrounding this process, it’s important that I clarify that throughout this post I will use the words “immigrant” and “non-citizen” interchangeably. Non-citizens include those who are undocumented as well as those who are green card holders or who have other types of protected immigration status. It’s important to understand that undocumented immigrants are not the only ones who can be detained and deported. About 10% of those who are deported each year are green card holders; 68% are removed after committing minor, nonviolent crimes.

The number of Criminal “Aliens”:

For years, the Obama administration has claimed that ICE is focusing its efforts on convicted criminals, and is going after “gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.” Perhaps in response to mounting criticism due to the high number of deportations, the Department of Homeland security (DHS) issued new guidelines in 2014, making the “removal of aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety ICE’s highest immigration enforcement priority.”

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Kimberly Pineda-Chavez was 17 when she fled Honduras to escape gangs that threatened to make her and her sister their “sex slaves”. The sisters were apprehended at the border and Kimberly was ordered deported 3 months later. She was detained by ICE and after more than 25,000 petition signatures Kimberly was granted bond and released.

But the numbers simply do not add up. First, the 2014 priority list includes “criminals” convicted of misdemeanors, as well as newly arrived immigrants, regardless of whether they present any security risks. Between 2010 and 2013, ICE removed 508,000 immigrants; only 3% had been convicted of violent or serious crimes (PDF page 10). ICE data released to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) shows that during April 2015 “only about one third (32%) of individuals on whom immigration detainers were placed had been convicted of a crime”; only 19% had a felony conviction, and two thirds had no criminal convictions. A “detainer” or “immigration hold” is the primary tool used by DHS to apprehend immigrants by asking local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to notify ICE of a pending release.

In California, 81% of detainers issued were for individuals with no criminal conviction. More recent data also shows that through February 2016, only 2% of those individuals in deportation proceedings nationwide were convicted of aggravated felonies, almost 7% had “other criminal charges”, and the rest had only immigration charges. What this data shows is that ICE has not limited its detention efforts to persons with serious convictions. Placing detainers on people with serious criminal convictions has, if anything, become less common.

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Lundy Khoy, a green-card holder born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled Cambodia, was a student at George Mason University when she was caught by the police with a handful of ecstasy tabs. She served 3 months in jail and received 4 years of probation. In 2004, ICE showed up to one of her scheduled probation check-ins, detained her and imprisoned her for another 9 months.

As part of an effort to enhance its enforcement mechanisms, DHS has criminalized certain immigration violations, especially re-entry to the U.S. It is thus not surprising that non-citizens are overrepresented in federal prison populations. In 1990, there were only 1,728 inmates convicted of immigration violations (Table 19, page 12). But that number increased from 36,564 in 1992, to 75,867 in 2012.

In 2010, about 55,000 of so-called criminal aliens were incarcerated in federal prisons, and about 296,000 were in state prisons and local jails in 2009 (Figure 1, page 7). The majority, about 60%, were Mexican (Figure 2, page 9; Figure 6, page 15). About half of those incarcerated were charged with immigration (18%), drug (17%), or traffic violations (14%), and only a handful was charged with violent crimes (Table 2, page 21). More recent numbers show that in January 2016, about 16,809 inmates were in federal jails for immigration-related offenses, the third highest type of offense prosecuted during that period.

Who is Eligible For Bond?

Not everyone who is detained is deported, but this does not mean everyone else gets released. A non-citizen in removal proceedings has no constitutional right to be released on bond, and courts have consistently recognized that the government has extremely broad discretion in deciding whether or not to release a non-citizen on bond.

Moreover, some immigrants are subject to mandatory detention. In 1996, Congress significantly expanded the categories of individuals who are subject to mandatory detention to include immigrants convicted of essentially any crime, not only aggravated felonies and crimes of moral turpitude (PDF page 8). Because of the topic of this post, I will focus on those who are eligible for bond.

When a non-citizen is detained, ICE will make an independent determination of whether the person is eligible for bond. ICE bond can be granted at any point in the proceedings. If ICE does not set bond or sets a high bond, the detainee may request a bond hearing, also known as a custody determination hearing. The Immigration Judge will decide whether to set bond in exchange for the release, lower or raise the ICE bond, deny bond altogether, or allow for a release under other terms or conditions.

Unlike the criminal justice system, where a defendant can post bail before arraignment or at arraignment, but within 48 hours of arrest, an otherwise eligible detainee does not have the right to a bond hearing within a similar time frame. TRAC data shows that between November and December 2012, 66,306 people were “booked-out” of detention; over 4,000 were released under an order of recognizance, and 6,730 were bonded out. The average detention for those who were bonded out was 42 days; only 19% were released within 3 days, while 3% were released after 180 or more days.

Several courts have challenged the prolonged detention of immigrants without the right to a bond hearing. The Ninth and Second Circuits recently ruled that a bond hearing must automatically be held within six months of initial detention (Rodriguez; Lora). This makes those immigrants subject to mandatory detention eligible for a bond hearing, but this does not mean they are entitled to bond or that they can be released. However, the burden is on the government to show that continued detention is justified, which represents, in theory at least, a much-needed procedural safeguard.

For those immigrants whose cases are outside of these two circuits, prolonged mandatory detention is still an issue. But the Supreme Court could soon hear a case on this issue (Jennings v. Rodriguez).

How do judges decide the bond amount?

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Immigration Judges are not Article II judges. They are “attorneys whom the Attorney General appoints as administrative judges”, and who exercise their own independent judgement and discretion in deciding a case.

During a bond hearing, the Immigration Judge will consider two things: 1)  whether the detainee is a danger to society and 2) whether he is a flight risk. The first can be shown through the absence of crimes, especially violent crimes. The second can be shown through evidence of family ties, especially if there are U.S. citizen children or a spouse, employment history, or letters of relatives or friends regarding the good moral character of the individual.

However, a judge “has broad discretion in deciding the factors that he or she may consider [and] may choose to give greater weight to one factor over others” (In Re Guerra, page 40). For instance, some judges will heavily consider and even require that the individual have potential relief from removal, such as having an immediate relative who can petition for them. But ability to pay is not one of the factors a judge considers (PDF pages 6-7).

If the judge denies bond, non-citizens can request a subsequent bond hearing if they can show that their circumstances have materially changed. A written motion explaining what has changed, along with proof, must be submitted (PDF page 3). Proof can consist of showing that detention has been prolonged, that the individual has been found non-removable because he now qualifies for relief or because criminal charges have been dismissed, or new case law has developed and it works in favor of the non-citizen.

Because Judges have broad discretion, it is not unheard of that bond is sometimes set at exorbitant amounts. By law the minimum amount bond can be set is $1,500, but there is no cap. While there is no comprehensive data on the average bond amount, a recent study of detainees in the Central District of California suggests that the average amounts range from $10,667 to $80,500 (PDF page 3). This same study found that detainees with felonies have an average bond amount of $47,133 while those without felonies have an average bond amount of $20,040. Another survey of 562 immigrants who had been detained in Southern California for six months or longer found that the median bond amount for these detainees was $15,000, “67% higher than the median bond amount of $9,000 for felony offenders in state criminal courts nationwide between 1990 and 2004” (PDF page 4).

Judges are supposed to make a bond determination based on all the information available at the time of the hearing. But if all the Judge has in front of him is information about a past criminal conviction, the likelihood of bond or low bond is greatly diminished. However, even if the Judges have more than just the criminal history, the study on central California detainees suggest that judges give more weight to criminal history, especially felony convictions, over other relevant factors (See PDF page 28).

The reality is that the immigration bond process can be complicated and non-citizen detainees many times are not represented and do not know that they only have one chance at a bond hearing. A national study of access to counsel in immigration court, found that of the 1.2 million removal cases decided between 2007 and 2012, only 37% had legal representation (PDF pages 11; 22). Those with legal representation were seven times more likely than pro se litigants to have a custody hearing and be released. While it did not specify under what conditions these non-citizens were released, it did find that those with legal representation showed up to court 93% of the time, compared to only 32% of pro se litigants (PDF page 73).

So, if Judges are supposed to be concerned not only with whether non-citizens are a danger to society, but with whether there is a risk that they will not return to Court, then providing legal representation in immigration matters, including custody determination hearings, may help ease that concern. And if the majority of non-citizens have no criminal convictions or have been convicted of non-violent crimes or of immigration violations alone (civil violation), then having legal representation may provide them with a more fair opportunity to make a case as to why they should be given a more affordable bond or be released under other conditions.

In my next post I will examine the practices of some bond companies that have greatly profited by the lack of uniformity and safeguards both inside and outside of immigration court. I will also examine the social and economic impact that high bond amounts have on immigrants and their families.

 

Fianza de Inmigración: Como la Libertad se ha Convertido en un Lujo Costoso para Algunos Inmigrantes

La fianza de inmigración, en teoría, sirve el mismo propósito que la fianza en el sistema criminal ya que ambas ayudan a procurar la libertad de un detenido. Es esencialmente un contrato entre inmigración y una persona (o compañía que pagará la fianza) para asegurar la libertad de un individuo. El detenido es puesto en libertad a cambio de la promesa que él regresará a corte o cualquier otro procedimiento judicial en el futuro. Pero a diferencia de la fianza penal, no hay garantías constitucionales contra una fianza de inmigración excesiva.

Antes de comenzar a explicar cómo se fija la fianza de inmigración y cuales son algunos de los problemas más graves con este proceso, es importante clarificar que durante este post yo usaré las palabras “inmigrante” y “no ciudadanos” de manera intercambiable. No-ciudadanos incluyen aquellos quienes son indocumentados, son residentes permanentes, y los que tienen otro tipo de protección migratoria. Es importante entender que los inmigrantes indocumentados no son los únicos que son detenidos y deportados. Un 10% de los deportados cada año son residentes permanentes; 60% son removidos después de haber cometido crímenes menores, no violentos.

El número de Extranjeros Criminales:

La administración del Presidente Obama ha mantenido por años que las autoridades de inmigración (ICE) se están enfocando en remover criminales sentenciados, y están hiendo tras “pandilleros, personas que afectan a la comunidad, no tras estudiantes, no tras aquellos que están aquí intentando mantener y sacar adelante a sus familias.” Tal vez en respuesta a criticas debido al gran numero de deportaciones, el Departamento de Seguridad Interna (DHS por sus sigla en Inglés) emitió nuevos reglamentos en 2014, haciendo la “deportación de extranjeros que posan un peligro para la seguridad nacional o riesgo a la seguridad pública la mayor prioridad para ICE.”

Pero los números no coinciden con los reglamentos de 2014. Primero, las prioridades de 2014 incluyen “criminales” que han sido condenados por crímenes menores, así como inmigrantes recién llegados, sin importar si presentan algún riesgo a la seguridad. Entre 2010 y 2013, ICE removió 508,000 inmigrantes de los cual solo 3% tenían antecedentes de delitos violentos o delitos serios. Datos proveídos al Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) muestran que durante Abril de 2015 “solo alrededor de un tercio (32%) de individuos a quienes se les dio orden de detención habían sido condenados con algún crimen”; solo el 19% tenían una sentencia por un crimen serio, y dos tercios no tenían antecedentes penales. Una “orden de detención”, también conocido como “ICE hold”, es la herramienta principal utilizada por DHS para detener a inmigrantes que están cumpliendo sentencia. ICE pide a agencias locales, estatales, o federales que le notifiquen sobre alguna liberación pendiente de personas no ciudadanas.

En California, 81% de las órdenes de detención emitidas fueron contra personas sin ningún antecedente penal. Datos más recientes muestran que durante Febrero de 2016, solo 2% de personas en proceso de deportación a nivel nacional tenían sentencias por crímenes serios con agravantes, casi el 7% tenían otros cargos criminales, y el resto solo tenían cargos por violar alguna ley de inmigración. Esto muestra que ICE no ha enfocado sus esfuerzos en detener a personas con cargos delictivos. Es más, órdenes de detención contra personas con sentencias por crímenes serios se han vuelto menos frecuente.

Como parte de los esfuerzos para mejorar la ejecución de sus reglas, DHS ha criminalizado ciertas violaciones migratorias, especialmente el reingreso a Estados Unidos después de una deportación previa. Es por eso que no es una sorpresa que personas sin ciudadanía estén sobrerrepresentados en las prisiones federales. En 1990, solo había 1,728 reclusos condenados por violaciones de inmigración. Pero este número incrementó de 36,564 en 1992 a 75,867 en 2012.

En 2010, al rededor de 55,000 supuestos extranjeros criminales fueron encarcelados en prisiones federales; y alrededor de 296,000 en prisiones estatales y cárceles locales en 2009. La mayoría de estos reclusos, alrededor de 60%, eran mexicanos. Cerca de la mitad de los encarcelados fueron acusados de violaciones migratorias (18%), relacionadas con drogas (17%), o por violaciones de tránsito (14%), y solo un pequeño número fueron acusados de crímenes violentos. Datos mas recientes muestran que en Enero de 2016, cerca de 16,809 reclusos se encontraban en cárceles federales por ofensas relacionadas con inmigración, el tercer tipo de ofensas mas frecuentemente juzgadas durante ese periodo.

¿Quienes son Elegibles para Fianza Migratoria?

No todos los que son detenidos son deportados, pero eso no quiere decir que todos los demás son puestos en libertad. Una persona en proceso de deportación no tiene derecho constitucional a ser puesto en libertad después de pagar una fianza. Las Cortes han reconocido de manera consistente que el gobierno tiene amplia discreción en decidir si pone a alguien en libertad bajo fianza o no.

Además, algunos inmigrantes están sujetos a una detención obligatoria. En 1996, el Congreso expandió de manera considerable las categorías de individuos que están sujetos a detención obligatoria e incluyó a inmigrantes acusados de virtualmente cualquier crimen, no solo crímenes serios con agravantes o crímenes de vileza moral. Debido al tema de este blog, me enfocaré en aquellos individuos que sí son elegibles para recibir fianza.

Cuando una persona no ciudadana es detenida, ICE puede hacer una determinación independiente sobre la elegibilidad de esta persona para fianza. La fianza de ICE puede ser concedida en cualquier momento durante el proceso. Si ICE decide no otorgar una fianza u otorga una fianza muy alta, el detenido puede pedir una audiencia de fianza, también conocida como una determinación de custodia. El Juez de Inmigración puede decidir si otorgar fianza, reducir o incrementar la fianza, negar fianza, u ordenar la liberación del detenido bajo otros términos o condiciones.

A diferencia del sistema penal, donde el acusado puede pagar una fianza antes o durante la audiencia donde se le leerán los cargos formales, pero dentro de un periodo de 48 horas después del arresto, un detenido en custodia de inmigración no tiene derecho a una audiencia de fianza durante un periodo similar. Datos de TRAC muestran que entre noviembre y diciembre de 2012, un total de 66,306 personas fueron procesadas fuera de detención. De ellas, más de 4,000 fueron puestos en libertad bajo promesa que el detenido regresaría a corte más adelante, y otros 6,730 fueron puestos en libertad después de pagar una fianza. El número promedio de días en que pagaron fianza es de 42 días; solo 19% fueron puestos en libertad después de 3 días de detención, mientras que 3% fueron puestos en libertad después de 180 días o mas.

Recientemente, algunas Cortes han cuestionado la detención prolongada sin derecho a una audiencia de fianza de ciertos inmigrantes. Las Cortes de Apelación del Noveno y el Segundo Circuito han decidido que una audiencia de fianza debe ser llevada a cabo automáticamente después de seis meses de la detención inicial. (Rodríguez; Lora). Esto significa que inmigrantes sujetos a detención obligatoria son elegibles a una audiencia de fianza, pero no son elegibles a recibir fianza o ser puestos en libertad. Sin embargo, el peso de probar por qué la detención prolongada es justificada cae sobre el gobierno. Esto representa, teóricamente, una protección muy valiosa para no ciudadanos en detención federal.

Para aquellos inmigrantes cuyos casos no se encuentran sujetos a la jurisdicción del Noveno y Segundo Circuito, la detención obligatoria prolongada sigue siendo un problema. Pero la Suprema Corte de Justicia podría pronto escuchar y decidir un caso sobre este problema. (Jennings v. Rodriguez).

 ¿Como los jueces deciden sobre la cantidad de fianza que se debe otorgar?

 Durante una audiencia, el Juez de Inmigración debe considerar dos cosas: 1) si existe riesgo que el detenido no se presente a la siguiente audiencia, y 2) si el detenido representa un peligro a la sociedad. El detenido puede probar que no hay riesgo de que no se presente a corte mostrando evidencia de lazos familiares, especialmente si tiene hijos o esposa(o) que son ciudadanos Americanos, si tiene un historial de trabajo, o cartas de familiares o amigos que hablen sobre su buen carácter moral.

Sin embargo, un juez “tiene amplia discreción para decidir cuales factores considerar [y] puede elegir darle más valor a un factor sobre otros.” (In Re Guerra). Por ejemplo, algunos jueces le darán gran consideración, y hasta pueden requerir que el detenido tenga algún remedio para no ser removido, si existe un familiar que sea ciudadano y pueda entablar una petición a favor del individuo. Pero la posibilidad de pagar fianza, o la situación económica del individuo, no son factores que el juez considera.

Si el juez niega la fianza, el detenido puede pedir una audiencia posteriormente para mostrar que sus circunstancias han cambiado materialmente. Una moción por escrito explicando que ha cambiado, al igual que pruebas, deben ser entregadas a la Corte. Estas pruebas pueden consistir en mostrar que la detención se ha prolongado, que el detenido no debe ser deportado porque califica para algún beneficio migratorio, que los cargos criminales han sido descartados, o algún nuevo caso legal ha sido decidido que favorece al detenido.

Debido a que los jueces tienen amplia discreción, no es inusual escuchar que la fianza otorgada sea por una cantidad exorbitante. Por ley, la cantidad mínima que se puede requerir en fianza es de $1,500, pero no hay cantidad máxima. No hay datos completos sobre la cantidad promedio de una fianza, pero un reciente estudio de detenidos en el Distrito Centrale de California sugiere que la cantidad promedio es entre $10,667 a $80,500. Este mismo estudio encontró que detenidos con delitos mayores son otorgados fianzas de un promedio de $47,133, mientras que aquellos que no tienen delitos mayores reciben fianza en promedio de $20,040. Otra encuesta de 562 inmigrantes que fueron detenidos en el Sur de California por seis meses o mas encontró que la cantidad mediana de fianza fue de $15,000, “67% mas alta que la cantidad mediana de fianza ($9,000) por personas con delitos mayores en el sistema judicial estatal a nivel nacional entre 1990 al 2004”.

Se supone que los jueces deben hacer una determinación sobre la fianza de inmigración basada en toda la información disponible durante la audiencia. Pero si todo lo que el juez tiene frente a él es información sobre condenas penales o acusación de crimines, la probabilidad que una fianza sea otorgada o que la fianza sea razonable, es grandemente disminuida. Sin embargo, aun cuando los jueces tienen información adicional, el estudio sobre detenidos en el centro de California sugiere que los jueces le dan más importancia al historial delictivo, especialmente a cargos por delitos mayores, sobre otros factores relevantes.

La realidad es que el proceso de fianza puede ser complicado y los inmigrantes muchas veces no están representados por un abogado y no saben que solo tienen una oportunidad para pedir fianza. Un estudio nacional sobre el acceso a representación legal en corte de inmigración, encontró que de los 1.2 millones de casos de deportación decididos entre el 2007 y 2012, solo 37% tenían representación legal. Aquellos con representación legal se les otorgo una audiencia para determinar su custodia y fueron puestos en libertad siete veces mas que los que compadecieron ante un juez por si mismos.

Por lo tanto, si se supone que los jueces deben preocuparse no solo sobre si el inmigrante es un peligro para la sociedad, pero también sobre si existe algún riesgo que no regrese a corte, entonces proveerles representación legal en procesos de inmigración, incluyendo durante audiencias de fianza, tal vez puede aliviar esta preocupación.

Y si la mayoría de los inmigrantes no tienen antecedentes penales o tienen antecedentes por delitos menores o por violaciones de leyes migratorias (violaciones civiles y no criminales) entonces recibir representación legal puede proveerles una oportunidad más justa para presentar pruebas sobre por qué se les debe otorgar una fianza más razonable o ser puestos en libertad bajo otras condiciones.

En mi siguiente post examinaré las prácticas de algunas empresas de fianzas de inmigración que lucran de gran manera debido a la falta de uniformidad y protecciones dentro y fuera de las cortes de inmigración. También examinare el impacto social y económico que las fianzas exorbitantes tienen en los inmigrantes y sus familias.