California’s bail system is unfair to non-wealthy defendants, especially if they’re innocent

Editor's Note:

The California Money Bail Reform Act builds off of Santa Clara County's historic move last fall to drop bail requirements for people awaiting trial. Ato Walker writes in support of reform, sharing the experience that led him to spend five days in jail and facing an $85,000 bail. This piece first appeared in the Mercury News.

On the eve of my 34th birthday, I was assaulted by the San Jose Police.

What began as a disagreement with a parking control officer directing traffic escalated into several police officers beating me with billy clubs. Worse, I was wrongly charged with resisting arrest with bail set at a whopping $165,000.

While more than 30 letters of support were presented at my bail hearing from coworkers, community organizations and friends, the judge denied my request to be released and instead reduced my bail to $85,000.

I make a decent living as a maintenance technician, but the 10 percent fee, or $8,500, to pay the bail bond company was well beyond what I could afford. My mother ended up withdrawing the cash from her retirement account to bail me out – but not before I had to spend five days locked up.

I am forever challenged by what happened to me.

My experience is an example of why California needs to pass the California Money Bail Reform Act, legislation authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta and Senator Robert Hertzberg. My organization, Silicon Valley De-Bug, is a co-sponsor of the bill. The proposal represents a growing consensus that California must reform its bail system to one based on public safety and not by wealth.

Our justice system is built on the premise that all people are innocent until proven otherwise. This was not my experience with the officers, district attorney or judge involved in my case.

Being arrested and being in jail distorted my outlook on life. I experienced first hand the cultural and ethnic biases within our criminal justice system. While in jail for five days, I reflected on how no one cared about my humanity. I was seen as just another criminal and a threat.

While there, I met a man who couldn’t afford bail and had been there for six months waiting for his trial. Some guys talked about taking a plea just so they could get out of jail. I could not sleep. I did not eat. All I kept thinking about was my son.

California’s money bail system only works for people with money. Bail bond amounts for black men like me are 35 percent higher than bond amounts for white men. Most families that can’t afford to pay the 10 percent fee go on payment plans, pushing them further into debt.

The pain, hardship, stress and emotional toll my mother went through is beyond measurement. Her sacrifice saved me. It allowed me to stay out of jail and keep my family fed while I fought the false charges.

Seven months after I was arrested, the charges were dropped in pretrial. But the $8,500 fee my mother gave to the bail bond company was non refundable, a permanent setback for her retirement savings.

The California Money Bail Reform Act builds off of Santa Clara County’s historic move last fall to drop bail requirements for people awaiting trial. It will fix the state’s money bail system by safely reducing the number of people detained pretrial.

Specifically, it would increase the use of pretrial assessments. Judges, law enforcement agencies and pretrial service providers will have additional tools to assess the likelihood that someone will show up for court and can be safely released to their community as their case moves forward.

It’s a reasonable approach that effectively achieves the safety of our communities along with the fairness and justice we are all entitled to.

This piece was first published by the San Jose Mercury News

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