Decriminalize Poverty, Fix Broken Bail System

Decriminalize Poverty, Fix Broken Bail System


When Melodie was 21 years old, she made a mistake and committed a crime. Melodie served her sentence and paid her debt to the courts. But before she could get her life back on track, she had to pay her debt to the bail bondsmen.

After being arrested, Melodie had a choice — pay the bail bondsman and go in to debt; or, sit for days in jail for her court date. Remaining locked up behind bars meant risking everything: her job, apartment, car, and family. It wasn’t a real choice. She spent years trying to pay back the bail bondsman. She postponed school. She borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from her grandparents. She got dangerously behind on other bills and severely damaged her credit. She suffered from depression. And Melodie is considered one of the lucky ones because she was able to secure the money and her freedom.

Last month, I invited experts, advocates, and community leaders from around the state to hear stories like Melodie’s and bring to light the severe shortcomings of California’s broken bail system. Money bail is intended to prevent court absences and protect the public, but as Melodie’s case illustrates, the system is broken. Instead, the bail system is disproportionately locking up poor people, regardless of guilt. 

More than 60 percent of California’s jail population, about 46,000 people, are sitting in jail and have not been convicted of a crime. Most aren’t being held because they are dangerous or a flight risk; unlike Melodie, they simply can’t afford bail. California’s bail system punishes poor people for being poor. If you can’t afford bail, you will sit in jail, even if you were arrested for a traffic ticket. If you have the money to pay bail, you can get out of jail, no matter how likely you are to flee or commit another crime. 

The ability to pay bail is an indicator of wealth. That’s all it is. It’s not a measure of flight risk and it’s not a measure of risk to public safety. That’s not justice.

What’s more, this unjust system wastes millions in taxpayer dollars. Californians pay more than $100 per day in invaluable public tax dollars to keep someone in jail — more than $4.5 million per day statewide. That’s money the state could be investing in improving our schools, keeping our kids healthy, creating new job opportunities and supporting California’s small businesses. Bail reform is an issue of racial, social and economic justice. It’s not a question of if the system needs to be reformed; it’s a question of how. People across our state and nation see the cracks in this broken system and are calling for reform.

California has historically led and continues to lead the nation on the most significant issues of our time. Bail reform is one of those issues. We need a better system, one that values justice and public safety over wealth.

I hope you will join me this year in my work to transform California’s bail system through smart, fair and comprehensive reforms. Together, let’s make our criminal justice system more just.

Rob Bonta represents Alameda in the California State Assembly.