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Columnist Valerie Schultz

The Californian

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.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at vschultz22@gmail.com; the views expressed are her own.

(4) comments

Hold Yer Horses

The money bail system is flawed to be sure. But in this case I have ZERO sympathy. A $20,000 bail is very serious- for a crime involving a repeat offender or bodily injury to an innocent victim. If there was enough probable cause to arrest a repeat offender or assaulter they should probably stay in jail until trial.

Churchillis1

The proposed legislation is a terrible idea. Imagine this: the only option is either to release somebody on their own recognizance, or the local jail will be required to hold them until their case is over. Sounds good and who doesn't like it?
Well, our local jails have strict guidelines on how many people they can hold, how many guards per inmate...etc. There are both State AND Federal laws restricting this. So, when they fill up, they MUST release people on their own recognizance. They start by releasing all the "petty crimes." These are the people that shoplifted, maybe rifled through your unlocked car for money, crawled through an open window to snatch and grab your stuff when you were at work trying to pay taxes in this over-taxed and over-regulated state, maybe even car theft. And without any bail money to make sure that they show up for court, many of them will just not show up for their court date. And then the cops will have to catch them again. And, if their crime is not a huge crime, the police will never have the time or resources to catch up to them...until they get caught committing another crime. End result? Crime goes up....again.
Only Sacramento, and apparently the Bakersfield Californian, could come up with a plan this infantile.

dogmom85

Well said! I couldn't have said it better.

I will add - there has to be probable cause to arrest someone. If you don't put yourself in a situation to be arrested, then whether or not you have money doesn't matter.

spikebradfield

Money should never determine if you are held or released. If our system can't afford or figure out a way to handle the number of people it arrests, it needs to come up with a better way. The argument, don't get arrested and you won't have to worry about bail is, by definition, retarded. Yes, apart from bad people doing bad things there are stupid people who do stupid things, stupid laws, stupid cops, bad cops, bad luck, etc. There are other ways besides our outdated and harmful money bail system. Again, money should never determine whether you stay in jail or are released, especially in the innocent-until-guilty phase, no matter what scary scenarios you use to justify it.

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