Across the country, cash bail systems have been under attack as being essentially debtor’s prisons. Cash bail means that many people will be kept behind bars before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay. That can be devastating, often causing job loss, loss of housing and massive disruption in a person’s life even though they haven’t been convicted of any crime.
As you may know, California just became the first state in the nation to abolish cash bail for suspects awaiting trial. The new bail system, which will go into effect in October 2019, will task local courts with determining whether a particular defendant represents a flight risk or a risk to the community while awaiting trial. For most nonviolent misdemeanors, the defendant will simply be released within 12 hours of arrest.
For more serious charges, each defendant will be evaluated on factors such as the seriousness of the offense, the likelihood of recidivism and how likely they are to show up for their court date. The defendant will then receive a score based on an algorithm, and the score will determine whether the person is held until trial, released on their own recognizance, or released with conditions, such as wearing a GPS monitor or checking in with an officer.
Whatever the result for each defendant, the bail and bond industry will no longer be involved. The American Bail Coalition told reporters that the bail industry is likely to sue to overturn the law, which could delay its implementation.
The idea behind using a scoring algorithm was to reduce the effect of human bias in decisions about who to hold and who to release. However, some critics are concerned that the new system may actually perpetuate discrimination as human biases are inadvertently programmed into the algorithms, which will vary by court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California and several other groups that originally supported the bill ended up pulling their support. They were concerned that it could result in as much or more pretrial detention as the system it is replacing — resulting in more discrimination against the poor.
“They took our rallying cry of ending money bail and used it against us to further threaten and criminalize and jail our loved ones,” said a spokesperson.
Here in Colorado, we continue to use a cash bail system that many believe discriminates against poor defendants. While it’s unclear what the ultimate effect of the California bill will be, it is incumbent upon us to consider what reforms may be available. Do you think Colorado should eliminate cash bail?