One of the pillars of our nation's criminal justice system is that all people must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, when people accused of crimes are unable to afford bail, they may be kept in county jail a long time before they ever see a resolution to the charges they face.
According to a report by the group Human Rights Watch, California urges low-income individuals who are not able to afford bail to simply enter a guilty plea so that the can get out of jail. In fact, according to the report, about 63 percent of those in county jails in the state had not yet received a sentence, as they did not have enough money to pay bail and therefore were still waiting for a criminal trial to take place. The waiting period could take months, and sometimes the person is ultimately not convicted of any wrongdoing.
The author of the report states that the bail system in the state ultimately penalizes low-income individuals, who must make the difficult choice of either staying in jail, taking out substantial loans in order to afford bail or simply entering a guilty plea even though it meant giving up their right to defend themselves in court. The median amount of bail in the state is five times that of the rest of the United States.
One solution, according to the report, is for the state to mandate that most individuals charged with a crime should not be imprisoned unless, after a thorough hearing, they are found to be a serious danger to the public. In addition, pretrial detention should not be required for misdemeanor charges or charges of felonies that are "non-serious."
It is very unfortunate that people are having to choose between their freedom and their day in court. Even if the charges against them are ultimately dropped or even if they are found to be not guilty, the damage to their reputation and their jobs has been done. Some believe that the only way to avoid these consequences is to reform the criminal defense bail system.
Source: hrw.org, "US: California Bail System Penalizes the Poor," April 11, 2017