- California’s Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to hold people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
- The ruling requires judges to assess community safety and a defendant’s ability to pay bail when determining bail amounts.
- High bail requirements disproportionately impact poor communities of color.
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California’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that it is unconstitutional to keep people behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.
The unanimous decision signals that going forward, California judges will be required to assess a defendant’s ability to pay bail when they set it.
“What we hold is that where a financial condition is nonetheless necessary, the court must consider the arrestee’s ability to pay the stated amount of bail – and may not effectively detain the arrestee ‘solely because’ the arrestee ‘lacked the resources’ to post bail,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote in the decision.
The justices concurred that there may be circumstances where the “need to protect community safety may conflict with the arrestee’s fundamental right to pretrial liberty,” but said that, “in order to detain an arrestee under those circumstances, a court must first find by clear convincing evidence that no condition short of detention could suffice and then ensure the detention otherwise complies with statutory and constitutional requirements.”
The decision came out of a case brought forth by Kenneth Humphrey, a San Francisco man accused of robbing a man for $7 and a bottle of cologne. In 2017, Humphrey was charged with first-degree residential robbery and burglary against an elderly victim, inflicting injury on an elder adult, and misdemeanor theft. A judge initially set Humphrey’s bail at $600,000 before reducing it to $350,000.
It is unclear how the state will maintain a standard threshold for the “need to protect community safety,” Santa Clara University law professor David Ball told the the East Bay Times.
According to the American Bar Association, around 500,000 people are currently in jail because of their inability to pay bail while they wait for their cases to be heard.
The problem of being unable to make bail disproportionately impacts communities of color, according to the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU also found that Black and Latino people are far more likely than whites to be denied bail and held in pretrial detention.
In one of the most well-known examples, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was sent to New York City’s Rikers Island after he was accused of stealing a backpack. A judge denied Browder the right to bail, and the teen spent three years – two of which were in solitary confinement – at the jail. He died by suicide at 22.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that works on prison reform, found that Black defendants are at least 10 to 25% more likely than white defendants to be denied bail or detained pretrial.
Additionally, the PPI said, “Black and brown defendants receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail set for white defendants – and they are less likely to be able to afford it.”
Bail reform organizations hope California’s decision will help set precedent in other states.
“I am pleased other people will have the same opportunities I had to change their lives and they will not have to wait in jail for years because they are too poor to pay bail,” Humphrey said in a statement Thursday, according to the Huffington Post.