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Ending the bondage of bail

California needs to reform a prejudicial for-profit bail system

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State Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham's (R-San Luis Obispo) recent letter to the New Times ("We need a bail system," April 12) indicates that he is about to vote no again on the issue of reforming our unfair and prejudicial for-profit cash bail system. Reform of this antiquated, prejudicial, two-tiered system is a matter of great concern to many voters in our 35th District, state, and country. Here's why:

Roughly 62 percent of people in California's jails are awaiting trial (presumed innocent) or sentencing, primarily because they simply cannot afford to pay the bail. This costs California taxpayers about $5 million per day to incarcerate a significant population while the legal system grinds slowly along. Additionally, there is a HUGE societal cost because those individuals cannot attend jobs; pay rents, mortgages, car, utility, or credit card payments; or possibly care for their children.

On average, black men pay 35 percent more for bail than white men accused of the same crime. This is an example of institutionalized racism.

Bail bonds typically cost the "borrower" 10 percent of the bond. If a bond amount is set at $100,000, a bondsman charges $10,000 for providing that money. Even if the borrower is found innocent, that 10 percent fee is never returned. Insurance companies invest in this $14 billion per year business, which then may use predatory loan practices with its desperate clients.

Bail is an incentive to come back to court but it does not by itself protect the public, despite Mr. Cunningham's inference that it does. In fact, our current two-tiered system allows dangerous but well-heeled individuals to go free no matter how serious their alleged crime. For example, the gunman who went on a deadly shooting rampage in Tehama County last summer had been out on bail after being charged with stabbing a neighbor. Unbelievably, a Bay Area woman arrested for killing the father of her two children was released from jail after posting an unprecedented $35 million bail raised by wealthy friends, family, and business associates.

Our military does not use a money bail system. States like New Jersey, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, and Arizona have reformed money bail systems to reflect an evidence-based approach. Defendants still return to court in roughly equal numbers than before the reform.

Defendants are more likely to be convicted when they enter the courtroom in custody. Whether you are detained before trial can very well predict whether you are eventually convicted. People become desperate to leave jail and agree to plea deals—sometimes for crimes they would be found not guilty of.

Alaska's new comprehensive criminal justice reform law will reduce the prison population by 13 percent and save taxpayers $380 million. California could save billions—and put it toward education. Despite overwhelming evidence, Assemblyman Cunningham is poised to vote against bail reform for the second time. While cities and states across the nation are moving to end this unjust practice, which is utilized by only one other country in the world—the Philippines—Cunningham remains intransigent.

I support common-sense legislation introduced by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys). Senate Bill 10 would replace the current cash bail system with a risk assessment system to determine a defendant's discipline to reappear in court, or the public safety risk if released before trial—regardless of wealth. The court would make the final decision in each case, and judges could still set bail or order people to remain in custody until trial. The proposed reforms would ensure that people accused of non-serious/non-violent crimes could be appropriately released from pretrial custody, enabling them to work, pay their bills, care for families, and participate in proving their innocence. This will make a more fair justice system while still prioritizing public safety and victims' rights.

Cunningham's April 12 letter was in response to a letter to the editor by Elie Axelroth ("Cunningham: Talk to us about bail reform," April 5). In his letter, Cunningham claims that his greatest concern is for public safety, yet during his first year he's voted against many bills that would enhance public safety. He voted against AB 424, to make school zones truly gun free; against AB 1008, to help the formerly incarcerated gain employment and make them productive citizens; and against AB 859 to help provide justice for abused senior citizens. As for protecting children, he voted against SB 395, which allows minors to consult with lawyers during all interrogations, and against SB 394 (now law) that gives people serving mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as minors (children) the chance of parole after serving 25 years. These are not the votes of a compassionate person with the best interests of the community at large.

We need to reform our two-tiered justice system that opportunes for-profit players to prey on the economically disadvantaged and people of color and costs tax payers billions of dollars while offering no greater security to public safety.

Bill Ostrander is running against Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham in the 2018 race for the state Assembly's 35th District seat. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write an opinion that needs publishing and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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