It’s been fifty years since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In the wake of his death, the battle for civil rights, equality and equity has been uneven. While we have made real progress, we still have work left to be done. Nowhere is this more evident than in our system of criminal justice.
For 28 years, the Community Coalition has been active in helping communities engage and working on reimaging justice. We have made positive change lowering homicide rates, while boosting graduation rates. Over the last several years, we have received support from leaders across the state and overwhelming majorities of California voters who approved Propositions 47 and 57, choosing rehabilitation and second chances over mass incarceration.
When it comes to criminal justice, there are undeniable race and class differences. We know that the failed lock-them-up policies of the past has devastated communities across our state and around the country. African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be snared in the trap of incarceration than their white counterparts accused and convicted of the same crimes.
This inequity persists throughout our system of money bail – an arcane system that does nothing to keep our communities safer, and again disproportionately hurts low income people, particularly people of color.
Unfortunately, we have created a system that allows for two forms of justice – one for those who can afford to post bond until their trial, and another for those who cannot. Under the current bail system, we offer freedom to people not based on the danger they present to society, but only based on their ability to pay. We have criminalized poverty, offering freedom for those who can afford to buy it for themselves, and leaving those who cannot stuck in jail or prison, even when they have been convicted of no crime.
Criminal justice reform must remain a central tenant of the civil rights movement. As Dr. King wrote in his famous Letter From a Birmingham jail, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And the current system of money bail is a grave injustice, treating poor people differently than those with financial means.
As with so many things, it’s even more expensive in California. Here, the average bail of $50,000 is more than five times higher than the national median. That means relatively few people can pay the entire amount. And those who can simply feed a predatory bail industry that profits by exploiting those who can least afford to pay.
According to a recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California, as many as 80,000 people statewide in local jails were there not to serve time for crime but simply because they could not make bail,. These are people who have been convicted of no crime, but simply do not have the cash on hand to pay the hundreds or even thousands of dollars required to post bail.
Leaders in Sacramento are currently debating bail reform, and the multi-million-dollar bail industry is fighting hard to prevent or water down any change to the current system. While there is great momentum for change, we must ensure that we get substantive reform that helps poor people and keeps us safer. We must not accept a band aid approach that doesn’t deal with the real issue.
Throughout these debates, those who are directly affected are still at the margins. While their fates are being decided at the negotiating table in Sacramento, those who have been in cages still struggle to have their voices heard.
Unfortunately, California today offers two kinds of justice – one system for those who can afford to buy their freedom, and another for those who lack the financial resources to post bail, and are forced to wait in jail as they await trial. Meanwhile, it is often women left behind to pick up the pieces of the lives that derailed by a money-bail system that inflicts economic damage, even if there is never any criminal conviction or wrong-doing.
Most inmates do not have the platform of Dr. King, but their voices are equally important. As we move forward with real reform, we must continue to lift up the stories of those who have been victimized by this unfair system of pay-to-play justice.
Alberto Retana is President and CEO of Community Coalition, a community based organization in South LA aimed to create, influence and change public policy.