He Stole $5…His Bail Was Set at $350,000

unjust bail system

The case of a San Francisco senior citizen accused of stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne from his neighbor reveals the obvious injustice of California’s bail system, and may finally lead to reform.

Kenneth Humphrey has languished in San Francisco County Jail for more than 250 days on $350,000 bail. His charges include robbery and residential burglary for allegedly stepping into his neighbor’s room in their senior housing complex.

But in late January, a panel of state appeal court judges ordered a new bail hearing for the retired shipyard laborer. The panel also stated that the laws governing bail are the “antithesis” of what the Constitution requires before a person may be deprived of liberty.

“A defendant may not be imprisoned solely due to poverty,” the court said, a revolutionary decision, if it’s upheld.

San Francisco is ground zero for the state’s battle over bail. Since October, the city’s public defenders have challenged bail amounts in virtually every criminal case.

San Francisco is ground zero for the state’s battle over bail. Since October, the city’s public defenders have challenged bail amounts in virtually every criminal case, demanding that judges hold hearings to consider alternatives to incarceration and inquiries into their clients’ financial circumstances.

They have found a sympathetic audience in the state’s appellate court judges, who have ruled that only an immediate threat to the public justifies setting unreachable bail amounts.

Prosecutors and judges at the local level, however, continue to undermine these appellate decisions by exaggerating perceived public safety risk.

Humphrey’s case is extreme in the sense that a $5 crime led to a several hundred thousand dollar bail, and even the district attorney concedes he poses no threat to society. But every day in every county criminal courthouse in California, prosecutors request sky-high bail amounts from judges who are happy to impose them. That makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence and equality before the law, as poor people accused of minor offenses wait in jail while wealthy people go free despite the seriousness of their charges.

Money bail as it’s currently constituted punishes poverty, and too often results in coerced guilty pleas from those who can’t get out of jail any other way.

How did we get here?

Jeff Adachi and Chesa Boudin
Los Angeles Times

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