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Congressman Ted Lieu

Representing the 33rd District of California

The Hill: Money bail, public safety fail

July 7, 2016
Opinion: Op-Eds

https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/judicial/286836-money-bail-public-safety-fail 

Sometimes dollars and cents are a matter of life and death. Whether or not you can afford bail is one of those cases.

Symone Marshall’s family knew she was in jail, but they didn’t have the money to bail her out. After a serious accident in which her car flipped over several times and ultimately landed in a ditch, Symone was not taken to the hospital for treatment.  Instead, she was arrested and thrown in jail for alleged possession of cocaine.  Despite not feeling well and demanding to be taken to the hospital, corrections staff refused, claiming that seeing the on-site jail doctor was enough.  Weeks later, Symone was found unconscious in her cell and later pronounced dead. The only reason why Symone had been kept in jail was because she could not afford to post bail. 

Most Americans have never heard of Symone, but her story is far too common in our country.  Like Symone, nearly 70 percent of the people in our nation’s city and county jails are there not because they have  been tried or convicted of any crime, but because they can’t post bail.

America is an exceptional nation, but our exceptionalism in regards to bail should make us ashamed.  Commercial bail dominates only two countries in the world, the United States and the Philippines.  In many nations, bail is outlawed and considered and obstruction of justice.  The numbers show us that bail disproportionately affects low-income people of color who are already overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Black people are less likely to be released on their own recognizance. Black people ages 18 to 29 have significantly higher bail amounts than all other defendants.

When asked if they could afford a hypothetical emergency expense costing $400, without selling something or borrowing money, only 47 percent of Americans said yes, according to the Federal Reserve’s most recent data. Bail amounts are regularly set in the thousands of dollars. Symone Marshall’s was $5,000.

Bail forces families to make the difficult decision between paying their loved one’s bail bond fees and covering basic needs — like food, shelter and child support. Families that can’t afford to pay the 10 percent fee in cash often go on payment plans, pushing them into debt that could follow them for the rest of their lives. They are responsible for that fee even if the charges are later dropped. That means that you can be charged and forced to pay bond fees for a crime that you didn’t commit. By anyone’s definition, that is unjust.

The No Money Bail Act of 2016, which has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, would change that. It would eliminate money bail in the federal system and give states three years to eliminate money bail or lose eligibility for federal grants.

Kentucky eliminated money bail and saw adecrease in crime connected to pre-trial release, as well as a decrease in pre-trial detention.Kentucky uses a risk assessment instrument to determine who should be released pending trial, rather than basing that judgment on the ability to pay bail bond fees. 

Of course, to ensure that risk assessments do not replicate the targeting of people of colorthat occurs in the criminal justice system, we must be vigilant about creating better tools that are not racially biased.

While ending money bail is good for public safety both inside and outside of jails, unfortunately those who profit from the current system are spending big bucks lobbying to protect their own coffers. Beth Chapman, president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, traveled to Washington with her husband, Duane Chapman, who is the star of reality television show “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

“A profession that has been on the books for over 200 years is in serious, serious jeopardy,” Beth Chapman said, in regard to the No Money Bail Act. She also said that people sometimes don’t make bail because “your family is sick of you and they don't want to get you out.” Statements like these not only insult families like Symone’s, they prove that the bail industry’s commitment is to its own bottom line —not the public’s best interest.

Ultimately, eliminating money bail is not just a matter of dollars and cents, it is common sense. It is also a matter of life and death for those trapped in the racially biased bail bond system that preys on the economically disadvantaged. Money bail is unfair and unsafe, and goes against our country’s values of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ We are better than this.