United States Sen. Kamala Harris came out against the current money bail system at an NAACP legislative seminar July 24 during the 108th NAACP Convention at Baltimore City’s Convention Center.
Appealing to ideals of economic as well as criminal justice, and highlighting risks and flaws she perceives in the current system, the junior senator from California aims to reform a court practice older than the United States system of courts that is deeply rooted in English common law.
Using a figure of $20,000, the average bail set for low-level offences according to the senator, Harris laid out a long chain of consequences that can come from such a steep obligation in her address.
While the amount scheduled by the judge is unpaid, the arrested person remains in jail. This runs the risks of lost wages and job loss and also the risk that, if the detained is a single mother, her children will be left unsupervised or be taken away by Child Protective Services, Harris said.
Using the same $20,000 figure, Harris explained that bail bondsmen will ask for a dramatically reduced amount that a modern family will still struggle to raise.
“The bail bondsman says, ‘I’ll put that up for you but, in return, you’ve got to give me 10 percent,’ which is $2,000,” Harris said. “Now who of us has $2,000 cash sitting around?”
Results of a 2016 survey by Gobankingrates.com show that 69 percent of Americans have fewer than $1,000 in savings.
Should the reduced amount be raised, even if defendant returns for trial, the amount paid to bondsmen is not returned to the defendant or his or her family.
When hardened and dangerous criminals enter the system, outcomes do not meet commonly held standards of justice, either, Harris said.
“Most of the members of transnational criminal organizations that I’ve dealt with have a lot of money, so they can put up the check,” Harris said. “That doesn’t make sense in terms of public safety.”
Harris is a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, the first Black woman to serve at either post.
“In a system that is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail, gets out for the same offense, but the person who can’t pay to get out of jails sits in jail with all these other residual consequences?” Harris asked.
The senator’s proposal is to base bail on the known risks that the accused may pose to the community and the possible risks of injuries that the community may have to endure without an otherwise productive member of society.
“So, instead of deciding if someone gets at least to pre-trial based on whether they can come up with the money, let’s make the decision based on ‘are they a risk to their community?’” Harris said. “Because, then we would understand that that mother is not a risk to the community. Let’s do it in an assessment that says let’s look, for example, at someone’s record of criminal convictions and whether they have convictions for serious and violent crimes.”
Harris is working on the bill with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“On the issue of economic justice, this issue of cash money bail is an issue that impacts urban America as much as it does Appalachia,” Harris said.
Harris was in attendance with fellow Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. Representatives in attendance were Bobby Scott of Virginia, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Robin Kelly of Illinois, Nanette Barragán of California and Scott Taylor of Virginia. According to seminar moderator Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, these attendees were selected for their 100 percent voting record with the NAACP.