Making bail reform a Jewish issue

May 19, 2017
prison jail bail countyLos Angeles Men’s Central Jail. Photo courtesy of downtowngal/WikiMedia Commons

As Jews, every year we revisit the same stories. Every year, we celebrate the same holidays, practice the same traditions and eat the same foods. But we do not do this in a passive, robotic way, but in a truly engaged way. We reinterpret. We question. We challenge. I’ve often heard that this is what people love most about being Jewish– the aversion to apathy, to accepting the status quo.

Our society is riddled with forces that continue to exist not because they are right, just or fair, but because “that’s just how things are done.” This reasoning is as dangerous as it is insidious, and it is against our Jewish tradition of questioning and challenging. Currently, one such force is at a defining moment in both the U.S. and California. That issue is money bail.

For people who have had little personal experience with the criminal justice system, money bail is simply the status quo. I say that not as a judgemental observer, but as someone who myself exercised an utter lack of questioning on this topic. Money bail is a silent constant in our culture, something that is simply assumed– in Law and Order, in Dog the Bounty Hunter, in Janet Evanovich’s popular Stephanie Plum novels. And because of my race, socioeconomic status and absolute terror of defying authority, I have never experienced the realities of money bail firsthand to give me any other perspective.

But after becoming involved with Bend the Arc and hearing just a ten minute rundown on the inequities and injustice intrinsic to our money bail system, I was shocked out of that privileged assumption. Because something that I had accepted as the status quo, something that I had trusted simply because it existed, is so profoundly and profanely unjust.

63 percent of people in California’s jails are awaiting trial or sentencing. Most of those people are there simply because they cannot afford bail. For even minor infractions, people who are presumed innocent remain imprisoned, while they risk losing their jobs, homes and families. This not only ruins lives, it costs California taxpayers money– about $5 million a day to house people in jails who have not even received a sentence. The money bail system disproportionately hurts communities of color. It incentivises people to plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed just so they can leave jail sooner. Money bail essentially punishes people for being poor, and then ensures that they stay that way.

States around the nation are beginning to attempt to remedy this inequity. Now, California is making its own attempt, with a bill currently in the state assembly and senate that would put in place a pretrial services agency to conduct a risk assessment to recommend the conditions of an individual’s pretrial release. The risk assessment would take into account a variety of factors, not just someone’s financial status, to decide the best course of action to ensure someone will show up to trial in a way that will still prioritize public safety. The bill is a huge improvement over our current ineffectual and unjust system.

Bail reform is essential any way you slice it. Morally, it will mean that people who should not be there do not languish in custody. Financially, it will mean huge savings for taxpayers– currently, it costs over $100 a day to keep an inmate in jail, versus ten percent of that to supervise them in the community. For people with public safety concerns, bail reform can only help. Currently, for most cases, the deciding factor in whether or not an individual awaiting trial is released back to the public is whether or not they can afford bail. With this bill, the comprehensive risk assessment tool will enable a judge to make a more informed decision about whether or not a person is eligible for pretrial release.

It is time to apply our Jewish traditions of questioning and critical analysis to this unnecessary and discriminatory system that has become so pervasive in our society. It is time to energize, engage and make tangible change. I urge you to contact your state representatives and voice your support for SB 10 and AB 42. Now is the time for us to do what Jews do best– ask why, and then act.

Erica Hendry is Southern California Campaigns Committee leader at Bend the Arc.

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