In San Francisco, city leaders have been studying the issue and today released a report showing that African-American and Latino residents are disproportionately impacted by bail: The groups account for just 21 percent of the city's population, but 63 percent of those paying bail.
The report details how the bail system strips $15 million a year from city residents -- more than $9 million of that from black and Latino families. The biggest impacts are felt in low-income neighborhoods, including the Bayview and Tenderloin.
And, the report finds that 85 percent of the city's jail population is waiting to go to trial -- while some are too dangerous to be released, half of those people could return to their families, jobs and homes safely, but are stuck behind bars at taxpayer expense because they can't afford to post bail.
Report: Bail Hits People of Color Hard, Strips $15 Million a Year From S.F. Residents
Cheryl Diston has been one of those people, and knows firsthand how devastating it can be to languish in jail because you can’t afford bail.
"You can’t breathe. The first thing you think about is your children -- who’s taking care of them," she said.
The mother of four struggled with mental health issues and drug addiction for years, and was in and out of jail during that time -- stints behind bars that resulted in her children being put in foster care for years at a time.
"Your children are affected, and I don't just mean for overnight -- this sticks with your children, this shapes and forms your children. Indirectly, directly. It affects who they become, all of that. It’s a vicious cycle," Diston said.
San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros heads up the Fines and Fees task force that wrote the report and is dedicated to easing the impacts of government policies on low-income people. Cisneros said he was shocked to learn what happens when friends and family members of those arrested go to a bail bond agent to post bail.
"There, they pay 10 percent deposit on their bail amount, and that deposit is not deposit, it's a nonrefundable fee that they forever have to pay, even if just a few days later the charges are dropped, even if they meet all their court appearance requirements, even maybe if they are found innocent -- that 10 percent deposit is forever gone," he said.
In San Francisco, the average bail is set at $50,000, meaning that the 10 percent fee is around $5,000.
"With a lot of low-income families, $500 can be a lot to come up with -- so $5,000? Particularly $5,000 they are never going to see again, because it's nonrefundable, is a very heavy hit," Cisneros said.
The report suggests a slew of recommendations, some of which are already underway, including investing more money in programs that let people await trial outside jail and creating a regulatory system to better oversee the bail industry. Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she is drafting that legislation now, and today will hold a hearing to examine the report and what San Francisco can do.
She said the bail system is predicated on a promise to protect public safety -- but it’s not doing that.
"It just allows people with means to buy their freedom, and poor people to get even deeper into the hole, by having to pay these large nonrefundable fees to the bail industry. And the people who are paying those fees are nine times out of 10 women," Ronen said.
Most of those women, she said, aren't accused of a crime -- they are trying to help a loved one. And, Ronen says, those women often end up on a payment plan that could last longer than that loved one’s court case.
"This issue impacts mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, granddaughters -- mostly women -- in one of the most vulnerable moments of their life, when a loved one is locked up," she said. "The effects are profound, on their ability to stay in school, to provide food for their children. And, the level of shame they feel ... a common thread from the women telling me their experiences, is the incredible feeling of shame."
Ronen said her legislation will create a licensing process for bail agents that operate in San Francisco -- and allow the city to collect more information about the debt collection agreements people sign with bail agents.
Another idea being explored by city leaders is the creation of a revolving debt fund that would act as a bail bond agent does now -- but give people back the 10 percent fee once their case is adjudicated. The report also recommends lowering the city's bail amounts, something set by the courts. And, it suggests adopting a text message reminder system for court appearances.
Cisneros said the bail report is part of a bigger push by his office and others to help low-income people improve their financial situation -- and make sure the city isn't adding to their woes.
"All we’re saying is when a fine or fee is warranted, let's make sure we are right-sizing it, let's make sure that it's impacting people equally, depending upon the income they have," he said. "So one of the things the Fines and Fees task force and our project is looking at is maybe introducing some kind of tool that gauges people's ability to pay -- maybe a fine for somebody making $20,000 a year should end up being a different dollar amount than somebody who makes $200,000 a year."