On a Friday morning in June, I am driving too fast on a freeway south. My daughter has been in jail since last night. The bail bondsman I call from my car answers on the first ring.
I give him an arrest number. He puts me on hold. “Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away,” sings Frank Sinatra, a seemingly inappropriate sentiment for this business.
He comes back on the line. He is reassuring, soothing. He can handle this. He can free my daughter today. He just needs some paperwork: my most recent pay stub, my tax return —
I cut him off, panicky. I am already 20 miles from home, and I don’t travel with these documents.
“Why do you need those?” I ask. “Can’t I just give you money?”
“You gonna pay $2,000 up front?” he asks, surprised.
“Don’t I have to?” I am naïve in the intricacies of posting bail. I work in a prison, but I haven’t been on this side of things before.
He recovers his cool, realizing he is talking to one of those rare and lucky Americans with a savings account.
“I won’t need those if you can pay the 10 percent,” he says. “Two thousand. Plus the filing fees.”
And that’s what I do. But now I have learned that if I didn’t have that kind of cash on hand, I would have to put up collateral, such as my house or my car, and make payments at a hefty interest rate. If I weren’t interested or able to do any of that, my loved one would simply sit in jail, pre-trial, pre-anything, supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but doing time nevertheless.
Welcome to the money bail system.
The bondsman explains to me that I will never see that payment again, no matter what happens with my daughter’s case, even if it is dismissed: That is the agency’s fee for doing the dirty work of bailing her out. Which, he reminds me, they are experts at. If she doesn’t check in with the bondsman weekly, or misses a court date, I will owe the entire $20,000.
Of course, if I want to save the bond agency’s fee and post 20 grand directly with the court, I can navigate the system myself, but he assures me that the court will find a way to keep my deposit forever. One little technical slip-up, and all that money evaporates. Do I want to risk that?
Well, no. When I finally get to his office, I transfer the funds, hand over my debit card, sign a lot of papers, and promise to bring my daughter to this office as soon as she is released. This is all done by about 3 p.m.
I rush to the jail with my daughter’s boyfriend, where the paperwork proceeds at the county-mandated glacial pace. My daughter is released around midnight.
She emerges from lockup moving like a frail old lady, although she is in her 20s. She has two black eyes. She is wearing a paper shirt. Her pants are as waterlogged as when they’d been shoved into a plastic bag more than a day ago. When she sees us, she starts crying. She makes promises. My heart breaks into pieces. (Her mistreatment in this place is a topic for another time.)
We check in with the bail guy at 1 in the morning. My daughter has to sign more papers, surrender her fingerprints, and make more promises. About 2 a.m., for the first time in my life, I check into a hotel with nothing. No reservation. No luggage. I think I look suspicious, but the clerk is unfazed. I ask for a complimentary toothbrush. It has been a day of firsts.
I tell this very personal story with my daughter’s permission, and with the intent of illustrating the changes needed to the unjust money bail system. My daughter’s journey out of jail is her story to tell, but the method by which she was released is a national shame. If I hadn’t had that money available, or a way to beg for or borrow the cash, my daughter would have remained in jail at least through the weekend. On Monday, a judge might have released her on her own recognizance. And if that didn’t happen, and it probably wouldn’t have, she would have sat in that hellhole until at least her first court date, which was a month later.
There are people in this country of ours who are behind bars for months and years, who have not been convicted of any charges, who are awaiting their day in court, and whose only crime to that point is basically lacking wealth. While they are locked up, their financial problems deepen, as they may lose their job or housing or car or even custody of their children.
Fortunately, there is proposed legislation in Sacramento to abolish the money bail system, although it is mightily opposed by the bail bond industry. The California Money Bail Reform Act (SB 10, introduced by Sen. Bob Hertzberg and supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye), would ensure that judges can determine, in the interest of public safety rather than a bank balance, who can be released while they await trial. SB 10 would also provide pretrial services to help people get back to court and comply with the judge’s conditions of release.
Freedom should not belong only to those who can purchase it. As grateful as I was to be able to bail my daughter out of jail, the level of privilege that made her freedom possible sickens me. This is not right. This is not justice. Reform is needed now.