As a police officer patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, I made split-second decisions every day based on risk. Yet after we arrested someone, the decision to keep them in jail or send them home awaiting trial didn’t hinge on risk but rather on their wealth. Our cash bail system wastes critical resources by incarcerating people pretrial who aren’t likely to reoffend, while letting high-risk individuals pay for release. Thankfully, we have a chance to end money bail this November by voting YES on Prop. 25.
We should prioritize justice – not the size of anyone’s wallet – when determining who goes to jail. But under the money bail system, cash is the primary determinant of who can buy their way to freedom. Even if a wealthy man is clearly guilty of abusing his children, he can spend his pre-trial period at home. Yet a homeless woman charged with a low-level offense might sit in jail for weeks because she can’t scrape together $100.
When we send someone to jail for weeks pending trial, they will likely lose their job. They also lose the opportunity to enter treatment or otherwise start working toward a better path. Research shows the longer low-risk defendants are detained they are less likely to appear in court. Keeping them in jail also makes their children more likely to struggle in school, experience trauma, and become involved in crime.
That’s why a panel of top California judges recommended that we end the money bail system; and why it was thrilling to see our legislators and the Governor pass Senate Bill 10 last year, which would have replaced the cash bail system with a system based on public safety.
However, the money bail industry raised enough money to force Senate Bill 10 onto the November ballot as Proposition 25. In order to protect their profits, they spent millions of dollars to block common-sense bail reform.
Contrary to the industry’s claims, Prop 25 would increase community safety by assessing defendants on their individual history and risk of committing another crime. A judge would make a case-by-case determination on whether the defendant could be released, and under what conditions. Those who pose the greatest risk would be incarcerated pretrial. Those who pose little risk would be allowed to return home, saving taxpayers millions of dollars wasted every day on unnecessary, unjust pretrial incarceration
Many jurisdictions are already basing pretrial release on safety instead of cash, disproving the bail industry’s doomsday predictions. Under Kentucky’s risk assessment system, ninety percent of defendants released pretrial make all their scheduled court appearances — better than the national average.
Closer to home, Santa Clara County found that 95% of defendants released without bail for low-level offenses honored their commitment to show up in court. Only one in one hundred defendants was rearrested for a new offense.
And finally, we need to call it like it is: the unjust money bail system falls hardest on people of color like me. Studies show that Black and Latino defendants are far less likely than whites to be released on their promise to appear in court. Our minority neighborhoods should not be carpeted with bail bond storefronts and billboards. We need to protect all our neighborhoods, not just the whiter, wealthier ones
Over decades on the street as a patrol officer, I saw how important it is to prioritize the greatest threats to public safety. If we want to truly protect and serve, we cannot afford to keep cash bail. There is a better way to protect public safety in our state — by voting Yes on Prop 25.
Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey (Ret.) served with the Los Angeles Police Department for twenty years. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.