Bail Reform Restores Basic American Values of Freedom and Justice

Gary Raney
Served for 32 years before retiring from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office in Boise, Idaho. He now consultants both privately, and for the US Department of Justice, helping criminal justice agencies improve their policies and processes.

Bail reform is not a partisan issue. It’s not an urban or rural issue.  It should be everyone’s issue.

It’s an American issue. The United States is one of only two nations on planet Earth that use a commercial bail system.

And across the country, from big cities, such as Washington, D.C., to rural counties in places like Alabama, from so-called blue states like New Jersey to red states likeKentucky, bail reform has either been enacted or is under consideration. Nationally, groups as diverse as the Cato Institute, Right on Crime, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Council of Chief Justices, the American Bar Association, and the ACLU have spoken out against current bail practices and called for reform.

And why is that? Because the current money bail system runs afoul of the basic premise of the American justice system, that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But even more troubling, the current system does not effectively protect the public.

That’s because people arrested for many crimes can bail out of jail – if they have the money – even if they are dangerous. That makes little sense.  Dangerous people get out of jail just because they have access to money – even if it’s money from criminal activities.

And on the flip side of the equation, if you are arrested and are not a danger, government should not have the right to keep you in jail just because you don’t have the money to post bail.  We ended debtor prisons years ago.

First of all, government should protect the public. Second, it should not take away your personal freedoms and constitutional rights without very good reason.

That is at the heart of bail reform and why a conservative like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., can join with a liberal like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to tackle the problem. They have introduced federal legislation to spur bail reform.

In California, SB 10 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, is making its way through the legislative process, and it provides the type of reform we need. The legislation has been passed by the state Senate and the Assembly Public Safety Committee and is awaiting a hearing in Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Supported by organizations including the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, and R Street, the bill would essentially do away with the state’s existing money bail system – a system that erroneously relies on a person’s wealth, rather than a person’s risk when deciding whether or not the person should be released from jail.

Instead, people who are arrested would be assessed for their risk of failing to appear in court and their danger to the public. For people not considered to be a risk to miss their court dates and those not considered a danger to do harm or commit a crime, they would be released, monitored and reminded when to return for their court hearing.

For those who are a danger or accused of a major crime, such as murder, they could be held in jail by the judge, keeping the community safe.

The idea is to do away with an inequitable system that keeps thousands of Californians who have been arrested — and are presumed innocent — in jail only because they can’t afford bail. The result of this loss of freedom is devastating for the individuals, who can end up losing their jobs, their apartments and their cars, which get towed if they are parked on the street, and it creates immense turmoil and difficulty for their families.

Santa Clara County implemented its own version of bail reform in 2012, adopting a risk assessment method aimed at reducing the pretrial jail population. It costs the county more than $200 a day to incarcerate a person but less than $25 a day to provide a person with pretrial services and monitoring. Moving to this new approach in 2013, the county saved more than $60 million by safely supervising many defendants in the community who under the old system would have been held in jail.

And no, the sky has not fallen in Santa Clara County. There has been no crime rampage. In fact, quite the opposite. Just as many other jurisdictions across the country have found, there has been an increase in the number of people who make their court appearances and a decrease in the number of people who commit crimes before their court hearing or trial.

I understand why bail agents are upset – this reform would significantly reduce their business – and I understand why judges, prosecutors and cops are wary. This is a new way of thinking about bail and pretrial services in California, but other places have been doing it for decades and found it is better for public safety and court appearance rates than the existing system.

If you are a conservative, why wouldn’t you support this? It is safer for the public, it protects people’s basic right to freedom and it is less expensive to administer.

It’s time to restore American values and justice to our pretrial system, values that both conservatives and liberals embrace.

Sheriff Gary Raney (ret.) served for 32 years before retiring from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office in Boise, Idaho.  He now consultants both privately, and for the US Department of Justice, helping criminal justice agencies improve their policies and processes.

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