Cash Bail System Hurts Poor and Communities of Color in L.A.

Cash Bail System Hurts

In advance of a legislative battle over reforming California’s cash bail system, a new report shines light on which Los Angeles communities pay the most bail and by how much. The Price for Freedom, published by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, analyzed arrest data from 2012 through 2016. The authors concluded that the money bail system takes a “multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”

Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.

Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.

Bail agents typically charge seven to 10 percent of the total bail; money going to bail bondsmen, whether upfront or through installments, is nonrefundable, even if defendants are found not guilty or have their charges dropped by the prosecutor.

The Bunche Center study also found that the cash bail system disproportionately affects lower income Angelenos and communities of color. During the period covered by the study, black Angelenos paid bond agents $40.7 million in non-refundable fees — 21 percent of total fees paid to bond agents in a population that represents only nine percent of the population. Latinos paid just over $92 million, and whites just under $38 million over the same period. Figures for Asian Americans were unavailable to researchers.

The Bunche Center study is the first comprehensive look into the size and impact of the bail system in the city of Los Angeles. Researchers plan to release a similar report for Los Angeles County in 2018, saying that the numbers they compiled should show lawmakers what’s at stake in the escalating debate over cash bail reform.

Comprehensive legislation to eliminate California’s bail system failed in the Legislature this year. Twin bills, Senate Bill 10 authored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would throw out the California bail schedules and mandate counties to conduct pretrial assessments to determine whether a defendant poses a safety threat to the community or a flight risk. The bills would also mandate counties to develop plans to ensure low-risk defendants show up for their court dates. Bonta and Hertzberg have vowed to bring back bail reform legislation early in 2018. And their efforts have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said “inequities exist” in the system, and of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who cited the state’s bail system as “unsafe and unfair,” and created a working group to recommend changes.

UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the authors of The Price of Freedom, told Capital & Main that her study showed 70 percent of the bail amount levied went unpaid, and as a result 223,366 people remained behind bars until their arraignment.

“Many of these people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food. If the breadwinner stays behind bars, the family suffers from lack of income.”

And it is most often female family members who, when they are able, engage bail agents. A 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that incarceration takes a toll on all family members through debt, mental and physical ailments, and severed family ties.

For Isaac Bryan, a graduate researcher in the UCLA Department of Public Policy and a co-author of The Price of Freedom, the issue of cash bail is personal. Eight months ago he received a call from a bond agent saying that a family member had  been arrested for alleged property crime and drug possession. The bail was set at $25,000, and would he be able to cover it? As a struggling student, Bryan didn’t have the 10 percent upfront fee.

Supporters of cash bail say it ensures defendants will show up to court. If they fail to appear, they forfeit their bail money. Critics answer that only works when an arrestee puts up the entire bail amount. If they pay a bail agent, they lose their down payment regardless of whether they show up. The agent is on the hook for the rest of the bail.

Bail reform advocates also point to a 2017 report, Selling Off Our Freedom, published by the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change, which showed that much of the money collected by bail agents goes to big underwriters, including Japan-based Tokio Marine and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial, and that insurers offload most of the risk to bond agents.

Efforts to reform the cash bail system have met strong resistance from law enforcement, prosecutors and, not surprisingly, the bail industry, whose representatives say that eliminating cash bail would pose considerable harm to the public.

“Bail bond is of no expense to the taxpayer,” said Zeke Unger, owner of Lil’ Zeke’s Bail Bonds in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. “But if you let defendants out, not only do they have no motivation to go to court, you’ll have to invest in manpower to keep track of them while they’re out.”

Cash-bail advocates also point out that agents help defendants, who otherwise could not afford to do so, exercise their constitutional right to bail. But the question reformers ask, and what’s at the heart of the reform debate is: Why should freedom be determined by a person’s bank account?

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice and a contributor to both Selling Off Our Freedom and The Price for Freedom reports, said that cash bail is supposed to make sure people return to court, but because of the high bail, in many cases, “it’s a way of keeping people in jail. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment. Right now the bail system is wealth-based detention.”

“We know that people of color are over-policed and over-represented in jails,” she added. “These reports show one more piece of the scale of economic drain of the criminal justice system on those communities.”

Across the U.S., states and courts are starting to rethink their cash bail systems. Earlier this year, New Jersey implemented an overhaul in its bail structure, and New Mexico is deciding how to address a voter-backed bail reform measure. In July, an Illinois judge ordered the reform of the bail system in Cook County, which includes Chicago. Now defendants who cannot pay bail and pose no flight risk or danger to the public do not remain behind bars before trial.

At the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to encourage states to reform the practice of using money bail as a condition of pretrial release in criminal cases.

Supporters of cash bail may see the reform writing on the wall, at least in California. Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, told Capital & Main that, although his organization will continue lobbying to fight the abolition of cash bail in Sacramento, it might acquiesce to some reforms.

“Bail is set way too high in California right now, and without the bail industry hardly anyone in the state would get out,” Clayton said. “Even bail on misdemeanors is higher than for felonies in Colorado. This market imbalance needs to be corrected and doing so wouldn’t have a big impact on us.”

Bail in California is set by a schedule for each crime, but varies county by county, though judges have the discretion to alter the bail amount. The Selling Off Our Freedom report found that bail amounts as late as the 1980s were much lower than today, and many people arrested for felonies were released without paying bail. That report also showed that, nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the share of arrestees required to post money bail grew from 37 to 61 percent, and the share of releases depending on bail bond companies doubled in that same period. The report said bail bondsmen and the insurance industry used high crime rates to bolster their argument for laws requiring bail, and lawmakers bought that argument.

Clayton added that sensible reforms could simply do away with bail for minor crimes that don’t present a public danger, like loitering, which often impact homeless and low-income people. “We shouldn’t detain a person who can’t make bail for longer than [what] the actual sentence might be. A 60-day sentence on a fine-eligible offense doesn’t make any sense.”

Larry Buhl
Capital & Main

Larry Buhl is a writer and radio producer based in Los Angeles. He’s a regular contributor to Art & Understanding, ATTN:, and DeSmogBlog. He has produced for the BBC, Marketplace, Free Speech Radio News and Pacifica radio.