In summary

A “Yes” vote on Proposition 25 means replacing a money bail system that criminalizes poverty with a fair system that assesses each individual’s public safety risk.

By Sam Lewis, Special to CalMatters

Sam Lewis is executive director of Anti-Recidivism Coalition, slewis@arc-ca.org.

It has never been more clear that our criminal justice system needs major reforms to meet its promise of justice for all.  For far too long, the money bail system has not only failed to keep us safe, it has served as a one-way door into a racially biased penal system.  

Californians looking for ways to end systemic racism in our institutions will have a chance in November to make their voices heard. A “Yes” vote on Proposition 25 means replacing a money bail system that criminalizes poverty and race with a fair, unbiased system that decides who has to wait in jail for their court date by assessing each individual’s public safety risk – instead of counting the cash in their wallet.

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Money bail frames our criminal justice system in terms of wealth: the rich, even those accused of violent crimes, can afford to buy their freedom. Everyone else has to either plead guilty to lesser charges or pay a bail bondsman $5,000 on average – a nonrefundable fee – just to avoid having to wait in jail for their day in court.  

The money bail system criminalizes poverty, but it also criminalizes the color of your skin. One study found that in California and across the country, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are twice as likely to be stuck in jail waiting for their trial simply because they cannot afford to bail themselves out. Bond amounts are set at an average of $10,000 higher for Black defendants.

There are countless examples of how unfair, and unsafe, this system is. Take Kenneth Humphrey, a Black senior citizen from San Francisco. He was accused of stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne, burglary and elder abuse. Unable to pay his way out, he was forced to wait in jail for almost an entire year before his court date. 

On any given day in California there are nearly 50,000 people just like Kenneth Humphrey – at risk of losing their jobs or their homes as they languish in jail.

Meanwhile, Brock Turner was charged and convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault – a violent felony. Despite the severity of his charges, his bail was set at just $150,000. Turner, now a registered sex offender, paid his bail and was immediately released back into the community as he awaited trial.

Meanwhile, Californians also pay a price for this ineffective system with our safety and our tax dollars. Money bail wastes $5 million every single day to keep people accused of low-level crimes locked up simply because they can’t afford bail.

If the concern is making sure everyone shows up for their day in court – there are plenty of methods that don’t include extortion, imprisonment or forcing anyone to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. A recent study found that simple interventions such as text messages, transportation to and from the courthouse, and providing information about childcare options dramatically increased the likelihood of a defendant showing up for their court date.

It’s not enough to get rid of money bail, we have to replace it with a system that delivers justice by addressing the systemic racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities embedded in our criminal justice system.  

That’s why the same criminal justice advocates backing Proposition 25 also passed legislation in 2019, making California the only state in the nation to require the justice system report on the outcomes of Proposition 25’s risk-based determination system through the lens of race and ethnicity.

If voters support the law that replaces the money bail system by voting “Yes” on the ballot this year, our criminal justice system will finally prioritize safety, not personal wealth or race or ethnicity, in determining who must stay in jail before their trial and who can walk free. It’s one important step toward leveling the scales of justice for all. 

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Here is an opposing view on Proposition 25.

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