Last year, Carlos Valiente found himself in a place he had never been before: San Francisco’s county jail.
“Oh man, it was crazy in there,” Valiente said. “They were dragging this one person out of his cell, 'cause he started screaming. He was banging his head on the walls. I was like, man, I am not trying to stay here.”
Valiente was arrested on a number of charges, for which his bail was set at $70,000. As a construction worker making $14 an hour, he couldn't afford to bail himself out. Instead, he called one of the bail bond agencies whose fliers he saw inside the jail, Aladdin Bail Bonds.
“They ask, 'How much money do you have on you?' really general questions about like, ‘How much you make?’ ” Valiente said. “’How much can you get right now?’”
His mother scraped together enough money for the bail agent, who agreed to get Valiente out of jail for $1,000 upfront and about $6,000 more to be paid in installments—or 10 percent of the total bail amount, the standard fee. In return for that fee, the agent posted what’s called a “surety bond” with the court. If Valiente had failed to show up, Aladdin would have to pay the full $70,000.
The for-profit bail system that Valiente used to get out of jail is part of a larger system known as money bail, which enables many defendants to be released before their cases go to court, as long as they post property or cash as collateral.
Next week a federal judge in Oakland will hear arguments that money bail, as currently implemented in San Francisco's jails, violates the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
More than 60 percent of people in California's jails haven’t been convicted of a crime, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Some are there because the crime with which they are charged is so grievous that they don’t qualify for bail. But many are locked up because they can’t afford to pay bail.
“Right now in San Francisco, if you’re arrested for a crime, your pretrial freedom depends solely on how much money you have,” said Phil Telfeyan, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Equal Justice Under Law, which filed the lawsuit. “So people who are wealthy can purchase their freedom. People who are poor have to sit in jail pending trial.”
At a January hearing in the case, bail agents from across the country showed up to defend their $2 billion industry. Among them was reality TV star Beth Chapman, wife of Duane Chapman. The husband-and-wife team star in “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and another series, “Dog and Beth: On the Hunt.” They travel around the world helping bail bond agents apprehend defendants who have skipped bail. She argued there is a reason defendants are in jail.
“He’s not poor, he broke the law, probably stole your identity,” she said. “He probably robbed your trashcan and got all your checks.”
According to Jeffrey Clayton, policy director for the American Bail Coalition, the commercial bail industry is saving taxpayers money, because bail agents are administering a pretrial release system, at no cost to the public.
“Then the issue is, it’s a policy judgment of whether we want to use a state program or a private entity,” Clayton said.
There is little evidence showing how well or poorly the current system works. Courts don't track how often people who have bailed out fail to show up — or get out and commit another crime.
According to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, poor defendants pay a high price as a result of the current system. He says many of his clients lose their jobs, homes, even custody of their kids while they are waiting in jail. And he pointed to research showing that defendants are less able to put together an effective legal defense from behind bars, even if they are innocent.
“Judges know that if you keep somebody in jail they’re more likely to plead guilty and their case will be processed faster,” Adachi said. “And it’s a dirty little secret in the system that bails result in guilty pleas just because people want to get out, and that’s wrong.”
Carlos Valiente did not have to return to jail. His bail was forgiven, and his case was ultimately dismissed. But he still owes Aladdin more than $6,000, which he said he will have to pay off over the next four to five years.
The case against San Francisco's bail system went to trial in October. In January, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers told attorneys for Equal Justice that they must provide greater legal justification for dismantling the money bail system at next week's hearing. Meanwhile, lawyers for San Francisco are arguing to have the suit dismissed entirely.