S.F. Disrupts California’s Bail System

Public defenders, the California Attorney General, and a new state bill may liberate those locked in jail or trapped in poverty due to the state’s excessive money bail system.

Sixty-six percent of inmates at California’s county jails have yet to go to trial, but are unable to pay their way to freedom. .Courtesy photo

On May 23, 2017, 63-year-old Kenneth Humphrey entered the home of his 79-year-old neighbor and stole $5 and a bottle of cologne. The retired blue-collar worker had suffered from drug addiction much of his life, and in his younger days, had been convicted of a couple felonies. But he was now a senior, and arguably less of a threat — despite his small act of theft. Nevertheless, Humphrey was arrested and booked into San Francisco’s county jail on charges of robbery and residential burglary. His bail, initially set at $600,000, was later reduced to $350,000 after he agreed to undergo drug treatment. But nine months later, he remains in prison, too poor to get out while he awaits trial.

Humphrey’s bail case is an extreme version of what the San Francisco Public Defender’s office says is a massive problem in our courts — and he’s been propelled into the spotlight, swept up in a political move to disrupt the money bail system.

“There is a bail schedule that is determined by judges, with no public input whatsoever,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said during an anti-bail rally on Tuesday. “In the last few years, we’ve seen some bails double or triple without any reason. It’s not based on inflation or anything, it’s just a number that’s based on the charge.”

Armed with Humphrey’s case, public defenders teamed up with the San Francisco-based justice nonprofit Civil Rights Corps to bring the issue to the First District Court of Appeal. On Jan. 25, the court delivered a decision that requires detention hearings to be held for any low-income defendant given a high money bail. That action, it stated, is required by the U.S. Constitution.

It’s a win for Humphrey, who finally gets a hearing on Feb. 22. But his case is just one of thousands; 66 percent of people in California’s county jails have not yet been convicted. Instead, many are there because the bail they were given is simply too high.  And trials can take months or even years to begin. While people charged with small misdemeanors languish in jail on our tax dollars, their jobs and relationships may fall apart, families may struggle to stay afloat, and entire communities can suffer.

Norma Ruiz spoke at Tuesday’s rally, which was held on the steps of the Hall of Justice, just across the street from a handful of bail bonds offices. Formerly incarcerated, her bail had been only a few hundred dollars, but her family couldn’t stretch their funds to get her out. Calling bail a “tax on the poor,” Ruiz says it has negative, long-lasting effects.

“I had to sit and wait for my next court date,” she said. “When you fight your case from the outside, you have a much higher chance of winning. While sitting in jail, you lose many opportunities to be able to gather and prepare yourself for your court hearing.”

While Ruiz was stuck behind bars, Child Protective Services took her son. “You only have six months to reunify with your kids,” she said, tearing up. “How are we able to keep families intact if we are not fairly and justly given the chance to do so?”

Ruiz’s son was placed with his paternal aunt, who became his legal guardian. It took Ruiz 15 years to legally reconnect with him.

“I want to make sure that moving forward, no mother and no child will be separated by this unjust bail system,” she said.

A new system is not yet in place, and to fight each individual bail amount is a gargantuan task. But San Francisco is nothing if not idealistic, and the courts’ public defenders stepped up to the challenge. For the past four months, they have been arguing every single bail amount that is set for a criminal case. In the first two weeks alone, that resulted in 282 challenges to a judge’s bail rulings.

It’s the type of effort the city is known for, and while the rest of the state and country might initially balk, more often than not they (eventually) follow suit.

On Tuesday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra did just that. Two hours before Adachi and teams of bail activists took to the steps of the Hall of Justice, Becerra streamed an announcement online in which he expressed support for bail reform. He, too, called out Humphrey’s case as an example of the system’s failings, saying his $350,000 bail was “an amount that most of us, including Mr. Humphrey, could not afford.

“It’s time for bail reform now,” Becerra said. “It’s long past time to reduce our dependence on cash bail and stop incarcerating nonviolent offenders for no reason other than them being poor. Bail decisions should be based on danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket. More time behind bars entrenches people in the cycle of poverty.”

Getting Becerra to voice this publicly is no small feat — but even he acknowledges that legislative reforms must take place before sweeping change can happen.

Senate Bill 10, or the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, is currently working its way through the legislature. As written, it “would safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial, while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system, and to ensure that people are not held in pretrial detention simply because of their inability to afford money bail.”

If approved, SB 10 will come too late for those who’ve lost years of their lives awaiting trial for something they might not even have done. It’s painfully overdue, but the system may finally be changing.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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