Bail Roulette: How the Same Minor Crime Can Cost $250 or $10,000

bail roulette

People arrested for panhandling in Mariposa County face a high bail amount. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

An antiquated, haphazard system allowing counties to set bail for misdemeanors often caters to conservative values and targets the poorest people

Encompassing Yosemite national park, Mariposa County is among California’s most beautiful regions. But if you’re arrested for panhandling or public intoxication, Mariposa can be the state’s ugliest county.

People arrested for minor misdemeanors in Mariposa County are on the hook for $10,000 bail, which is supposed to insure someone shows up to court, whether the charges have merit or not. Those who can’t afford the nonrefundable bail bond fee – usually 10% of bail, or $1,000 in Mariposa cases – sit in jail until their case makes it in front of a judge.

Compare that to the neighboring Mono County, where recommended bail is $250 for minor offenses, or the rural Sierra, Placer and Nevada counties, where some minor offenders are released without bail. The disparities are part of a haphazard system that allows each of California’s counties to set its own bail – a system found in most states.

The Guardian looked at California to try and get a sense of the dynamics across a large state. An inspection of bail schedules in 56 of California’s 58 counties – rural Humboldt and Amador counties did not respond to repeated requests – shows huge disparities in how misdemeanor bail is handled. The analysis showed big differences even regarding minor crimes that would lead to little or no jail time upon conviction.

While someone might be guilty of public drunkenness, that doesn’t mean the criminal charges will stop there. And that means bail could be significantly higher than expected. In a country where nearly half of families wouldn’t be able to afford an emergency $400 expense, according to the Federal Reserve, those county-to-county differences can have dramatic effects on residents.

bail roulette“Because so few cases end in a trial and so many end in a plea bargain, there’s a huge incentive to charge more serious offenses,” said Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “What you’re charged with really depends on what county you’re in.”

Then there’s Florida, where bail schedules – lists of recommended bail amounts – are difficult to come by and rarely are posted on court websites. In Pinellas County, which includes St Petersburg, low-level offenders often are released without bail if they promise to show up in court. But Pasco County, just to the north, no longer allows supervised release without bail, said Bill Dillinger, the public defender for both counties.

“We’re fighting it here,” said Dillinger, president of the Florida Public Defender Association. “It is the poor people who suffer. It’s so unfair.”

Bail schedules tend to reflect community values. If you sell drugs near a church in Florida’s fifth circuit, west of Orlando, you can expect to pay $5,000 bail. But bringing a gun to school? That will cost just $2,000.

“That’s an indication of where we are,” said Mike Graves, the fifth circuit public defender. “It’s a conservative place.”

And several Florida counties offer steep bail discounts to local residents. Accused felons in Palm Beach County can bail out for about two-thirds the price out-of-state felons face.

Some states, including California, are trying to reform their bail systems so residents don’t sit in jail on minor charges – which often are later dropped. The Pretrial Justice Institute argues bail schedules should be eliminated in favor of individual risk assessments.

Bail reform also has attracted bipartisan support at the federal level, with the US senators Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky jointly asking states to overhaul their bail systems.

In Santa Clara County – the heart of Silicon Valley – police arrested 265 people in the first six months of this year who were never charged with a crime. Those people paid about $500,000 in nonrefundable bail bond fees, said Aaron Johnson, who directs the county’s pretrial services office, while those who couldn’t afford the fee sat in jail and waited, sometimes for weeks.

Bail schedules are antiquated and ineffective, Johnson said, and should be replaced with computerized systems that determine whether someone is a flight risk, such as New Jersey’s fledgling program.

“Would you go to a doctor who still used the same practices as in the 1900s?” he said. “The mindset is that money bail equals public safety, but that’s not how it works.”

bail roulette

Santa Clara County. Photograph: Aerial Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

In Tuolumne County, accused prostitutes usually are booked and released without bail. But San Bernardino County takes a harsher approach, with $50,000 bail recommended for misdemeanor prostitution charges. And those decisions can vary widely depending on a defendant’s race and the judge they see.

“It can have an effect, when you look at implicit biases,” said Phyllis Morris, the public defender for San Bernardino County. “It’s not necessarily applied evenly across ethnic groups here in San Bernardino County.”

The scattershot approach to bail has attracted critics from all sides. Defense attorneys say that some counties rely on their bail schedules to pack more people into already overcrowded jails, feeding arguments for bigger, newer facilities that cost taxpayers millions, and that they unfairly treat all defendants the same.

Asked about the range of different bail amounts and criticisms of the system, officials at California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for California courts, declined to comment. Officials at Mariposa county said they were not aware they had the highest bail for low-level misdemeanors and said it would be inappropriate to comment.

“There’s certainly a cultural aspect to it,” said Brian Back, a Ventura County Superior Court judge whose term on the California Judicial Council ended this month. But should the state ignore those cultural differences and require a one-size-fits-all bail schedule? There is definitely an argument there which has credence.”

In the Jacksonville area, in Florida’s north-eastern corner, litterbugs, panhandlers and drunks routinely sit in jail alongside violent offenders for two weeks because they can’t afford bail, said Charlie Cofer, a public defender.

And prosecutors complain that some judges rely too heavily on bail schedules, treating first-time offenders the same as defendants with long rap sheets.

“Everybody is not alike,” said Glenn Hess, the elected state attorney for Florida’s 14th judicial circuit, which includes some of the state’s poorest counties. “You have one dummy catching his first charge, and then you have a frequent flyer catching the same charge.”

The 14th circuit has no bail schedule – each judge determines bail on a case-by-case basis. The circuit’s judges considered setting a schedule last year, said Chief Judge Elijah Smiley, but ultimately decided they liked the flexibility of the current system.

Judges need to be trusted to make bail decisions, Smiley said.

“It’s no different than the hundreds of other decisions a judge makes in the course of a day,” he said. “I use the same internal barometer that I use when I sentence people.”

bail rouletteBail schedules provide only a starting point – judges are supposed to take a range of factors into account when setting bail. They could decide a defendant shows little risk of fleeing and should be released immediately, or they could decide to set bail far above the recommended amount.

In some places, the recommended bail bears little resemblance to the final decision.

In Jacksonville, Jonathan Daniels, 39 and homeless, was arrested in August for stealing a bicycle, according to a federal lawsuit seeking to reform the city’s bail system. The bond schedule recommended an approximately $1,500 fee for Daniels’ release; a judge bumped that to $10,000.

“The average joker doesn’t have a damn dime, so they sit in jail,” said Bill Sheppard, the attorney representing Daniels and two other plaintiffs who remained jailed when the suit was filed in late August. “It coerces people to plead guilty. I’m sure it’s happening in every state in the damn country.”

Matt Krupnik
The Guardian

Speak Your Mind

*