High-level California court hits hard against cash bond | Crime News

San Francisco, California, United States – California’s highest court last week issued a ruling that calls for criminal justice reform in the United States that calls for a “historic victory” for efforts to tackle racial and economic inequality.

In a unanimous March 25 decision, the California Supreme Court mentionned courts cannot require people accused of a felony to pay cash bail as a condition of pre-trial release, unless they take into account the person’s ability to pay.

“No one should lose their right to liberty just because that person cannot afford to post a bond,” the court concluded. “The current practice of making liberty conditional only on whether an arrested person can pay bail is unconstitutional.”

The move comes as the United States examines structural racism in its criminal justice system, spurred in part by last year’s mass protests demanding an end to racial injustice and police violence against black people.

“This is a far-reaching decision,” Andrea Woods, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Criminal Law Reform Project, told Al Jazeera. “Organizations have been fighting to bring attention to the terrible harm caused by cash surety for years, and this is a validation of their efforts. It is a huge victory.

Indeed, while several civil rights advocacy and criminal justice reform groups welcomed the court’s ruling, many tempered their enthusiasm with the warning that public scrutiny and attention would be needed to ensure that the recommendations are implemented in a fair and consistent manner.

“We welcome this decision, while recognizing that court rulings alone are not enough to change a culture,” Katherine Hubbard, a senior civil rights lawyer who worked on the case, told Al Jazeera. .

By declaring that a person cannot be kept in pre-trial detention simply because they cannot afford to pay bail, the court has shifted the burden on judges and prosecutors, who must now provide evidence ” clear and convincing ”to demonstrate that pre-trial detention is necessary on the basis of factors such as risk of non-appearance or threat to public safety.

Remand cannot be used if an arrested person is simply unable to pay bail, the California Supreme Court has ruled. [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

The court also said pre-trial detention should only be used when alternatives that keep people away from the prison system are not possible. Instead, authorities could consider other release conditions such as electronic surveillance, regular registration protocols, or community housing or shelter, the court said.

Review of the ‘tough on crime’ philosophy

The decision marks the most recent victory for an emerging coalition of organizations and officials re-examining the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice that has driven California’s incarcerated population up 180% since 1970, according to an official. to study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for justice reform. The study also found that in 2015, 53% of California’s prison population were remand inmates, and the racial disparities were surprising: While 6% of Californians are black, they made up over 20% of the population. prison population.

The cash bond has been criticized by reformers and civil rights groups, who say the policy discriminates against poor Americans, especially those from communities of color. Bail payments are often required to get out of jail before a trial and are refunded after trial to ensure attendance. But many cannot afford the bail rates and have little choice but to wait behind bars for their trial or pay a surety company to cover the payment. Bond companies charge up to 10% of the bond rate for the service.

California is known for its sky-high bail rates, more than five times the national median, according to the ruling.

The California Supreme Court said courts could not require people charged with a felony to post cash bail as a condition of release before trial, unless they took into account the ability to pay. person. [File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

The court ruling upheld a state court’s finding that Kenneth Humphrey, a man in his sixties accused of stealing less than $ 10 from a neighbor, could be released with an ankle bracelet because he did not could not afford to pay a bond, initially set at $ 600,000, then revised downwards. to $ 350,000. If Humphrey had gone to see a bail bond, he would have had to pay around $ 35,000, regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Supporters of the surety accept the decision

Supporters of the cash bond say it’s an important tool in making sure people show up on their court dates.

However, the American Bail Coalition told Al Jazeera that the ruling would mean “further judicial review of cases where someone posts a bond,” but that “those who are able to post a bond will still be allowed to do so. to do”. While previous bills would have abolished the cash bond, industry groups appeared to accept the decision, noting that while it will reduce the use of the bond, it does not remove it entirely.

Greg Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, said his group “has long believed that California’s bail system needs thoughtful reform” and “does not challenge” the court ruling. supreme.

Previous legislation to abolish the cash bond in California met with stiff opposition from the state’s multibillion-dollar cash bond industry.

A bail company is seen outside the Los Angeles County Men’s Prison in Los Angeles, California [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Last week’s decision comes four months after Californians rejected Proposition 25, a voting initiative that would have overturned the use of the cash bond in favor of risk assessment tools that seek to determine whether a individual constitutes a threat to public safety or not.

Some progressive groups have joined an unlikely alliance with law enforcement and bail supporters to oppose the bill, citing fears that risk assessment tools contain biases that could reproduce the very inequalities. that the reformers hoped to excise from the system.

“In some ways I see this as more ambitious than previous legislation that would have prohibited cash bail because it asks judges to explore alternatives to incarceration where possible,” said the Minister. California State Senator Scott Wiener to Al Jazeera on the Supreme Court ruling.

Wiener co-wrote SB 10, a bill that would have abolished the cash bond. The bill passed, but the cash bond industry quickly worked to undermine it, and the law was ultimately overturned when Proposition 25 failed to pass in the 2020 election. “For so long a long time. , we have operated with the belief that we can solve our problems by throwing people in jail, and that is just not true, ”Wiener said. “It’s a recognition of that.”

Critics have long argued that the practice violates the rights of those who cannot afford to post a bond; About half a million people who have not been convicted of a felony are incarcerated across the United States because they cannot pay their bail, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank that stands for focuses on criminal justice and mass incarceration.

While the court ruling does not abolish the cash bond, as SB 10 and Prop 25 attempted, many criminal justice advocates say it is revolutionary nonetheless.

“I know what it’s like to feel sick for fear of not being able to raise enough money to post a bond for a loved one,” said Dolores Canales, organizer of the Bail Project, which helps to provide a deposit for those who cannot afford it.

“This is a huge deal and I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done and we must remain vigilant.”

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