Imagine being arrested for something you didn't do, but you're still tossed in jail. Imagine that you have to get out of jail in order to take care of an elderly relative or get to work the next day.
So you go to the bail bondsman, you pay 10 percent up front in order to get the bond, and you get out of jail. The next day the District Attorney says the charges are dropped, but all that cash you just dropped on the bail bondsman is gone.
That is California's bail system, rigged for people with assets and hammering those without.
Wealthy suspects can put up their houses or other valuable assets — or simply write a check — to post bail and stay out of jail until their cases are resolved. Poorer suspects aren't so lucky. Many remain behind bars or pay nonrefundable fees to bail bonds companies.
San Francisco public defender Chesa Boudin says some of his clients who can't afford to post bail plead guilty to minor charges for crimes they didn't commit so they can leave jail.
Boudin represented Buffin, 19, after her arrest for grand theft in October. Buffin couldn't afford to post the $30,000 bail or pay a bond company a $3,000 fee and so contemplated pleading guilty in exchange for a quick release from jail even though she says her only crime was being with the "wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Fortunately, the district attorney declined to charge Buffin and she was released after being held for three days.
Now there's a movement afoot to change that system, which strikes me as an utter perversion of due process.
The lawsuit filed by the Equal Justice Under Law in San Francisco federal court in October seeks to abolish the cash bail system in the city, state — and the country. It's the ninth lawsuit the center has filed in seven states.
"The bail system in most states is a two-tiered system," said center founder Phil Telfeyan. "One for the wealthy and one for everyone else."
The center has settled four lawsuits, persuading smaller jails in states in the South to do away with cash bail requirements for most charges.
Telfeyan said a win in California could add momentum to the center's goal to rid the country of the cash bail system, which the lawyers say is used by most county jails in all 50 states. The federal system usually allows nonviolent suspects free without bail pending trial and denies bail to serious and violent suspects.
"The country watches what happens in California," said Telfeyan, a former Department of Justice attorney who founded the Washington organization in 2013 with a partner and the first-ever grant from the Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund in 2013.
Telfeyan said it's not his goal to put out of business the classic neon-advertising bail bonding industry, but conceded the business model would become obsolete if he convinces courts that the cash bail system is unconstitutional.
It is unconstitutional. I can see paying interest or a fee, but giving poor people the option of giving over the full 10 percent amount as a "fee" is obscene.