By Jacob Denney, Director of Policy and Research
This week, California legislators moved forward in passing Senate Bill 10 to eliminate money bail. While eliminating money bail is desperately needed to fix our broken criminal justice system, the bill as it stands now will do nothing to disrupt the legacy of racial and economic injustice that has shaped our state’s criminal justice system. In fact, the bill will likely ensure a continuance of that legacy. That is why we need Governor Brown to veto Senate Bill 10.
To be clear, we must get rid of money bail in order to address the deep inequities of our current criminal justice system. Money bail disproportionately punishes people with low incomes and people of color. It creates a two-tiered system of justice, one where those who can afford it are released from pretrial incarceration and everyone else is trapped in jail, unable to work, support their families, or assist in their own defense. This system reduces economic stability, particularly for families who are already struggling, and destroys thousands of people’s lives in California every year. Senate Bill 10 is likely to do the exact same thing.
Senate Bill 10 would replace the discriminatory money bail system with a new structure where anyone accused of a crime can be held pretrial, regardless of the circumstances. Dubbed “preventive detention,” this discretionary evaluation process would enable judges and prosecutors to hold people accused of crimes in jail with remarkable ease. This means that more, rather than fewer, Californians would likely end up behind bars while waiting for trial.
While the bill does require a preventive detention hearing within “three court days,” research has shown that even short stays in jail before a trial can have serious consequences. People held in jail pretrial are more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison, and for longer periods of time than people who are released pretrial.
Given the entrenched — and well documented — racial basis in our justice system, the likely increase in pretrial detention for people of color would create further economic instability for California’s communities of color. People of color in California are already less financially stable than their white neighbors. Using the Insight Center’s Self-Sufficiency Standard, a tool that defines the amount of income necessary to meet the basic needs of California families, 52% of Latinx families and 46% of Black families are unable to afford their basic needs.
By replacing the costs of money bail with the heightened risk and added costs of “preventive detention,” the bill would subject communities that are already disproportionately criminalized to a discretionary system vulnerable to further prejudice. Communities of color will see a growing number of their friends, family, and neighbors held in jails. This will cost people their jobs, homes, and what little economic stability they have managed to sustain.
Pretrial detention would also likely further incentivize guilty pleas. Since even a short stay in jail before trial has severe consequences, many people feel compelled to plead guilty rather than sit behind bars waiting for the chance to argue their case. Yet once people plead guilty, their economic options shrink considerably. People with criminal records have a much harder time finding a job, typically earn less income, and accumulate much less wealth. That impacts not only the lives of the individuals who are convicted of the crime, but also the lives of the family and community members who help support them, and the lives of their children who stand to inherit much less.
Money bail is one part of what is wrong with the Golden State’s criminal justice system, and we should not replace it with something potentially worse. This bill only serves to add a veneer of respectability to a system that will continue to disproportionately incarcerate Black and Brown people across California. It will destabilize the lives of thousands of Californians, and will reduce economic security for communities who already face significant economic hurdles. Call Governor Brown’s office at 916–445–2841 and tell him to veto Senate Bill 10. We need to fix California’s broken criminal justice system, not swap out faulty parts for ones just as flawed.