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Kamala Harris and Rand Paul Introduce National Bail Reform Bill

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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee June 21, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A bill introduced Thursday by California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, seeks to incentivize state and tribal court systems to ditch monetary bail.

The bill would allocate $10 million over three years to fund federal grants for courts instituting pretrial services and data-driven risk evaluations thought to reduce racial and economic disparities between defendants who are held and those who are released pending trial.

"In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not -- and that’s wrong," Harris said in a written statement announcing the bill. "We must come together to reform a bail system that is discriminatory, wasteful, and fails to keep our communities safe.”

The bill's text notes that typically higher bail amounts are set for people of color.

"African American and Hispanic defendants are more likely to be detained pretrial than white defendants and less likely to be able to post money bail so they can be released," it says. "Moreover, race and money bail amounts are significantly correlated. Nationally, African American men pay 35 percent higher money bail amounts than white men, and Hispanic men pay 19 percent higher money bail amounts than white men."


Decisions about whether defendants should be released pending trial hinge on risk to public safety and the likelihood that they will show up to court -- factors generally weighed by judges. Defendants can be released without conditions on their "own recognizance," with conditions, or only after they've backed their promise to return to court with a monetary payment.

A burgeoning national movement to reform the bail system seeks to make release decisions less subjective and significantly reduce the number of people jailed while awaiting trial. Harris and Paul's bill estimates that 450,000 people are incarcerated in the U.S. without having been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial.

Racial equity groups hailed the bill's introduction Thursday. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, said ending money bail is essential to reducing the country's reliance on incarceration.

"It benefits no one other than the for-profit bail industry, which has devastated Black communities by locking up people -- the vast majority of whom have not even been convicted of a crime -- all so that its corporate backers can line their pockets," Robinson said in a written statement. "This multi-billion dollar industry has not only extorted our communities and broken up our families, but has also ruthlessly fought to influence politicians and block criminal justice reform."

Attempts to reach California and national bail agent trade groups, which have opposed legislative and legal efforts to change the system, were unsuccessful.

Harris and Paul's legislation would spread $10 million among state and tribal court systems to replace the use of bail with "risk-based decision making that includes objective, research-based, and locally-validated assessment tools that do not result in unwarranted disparities," according to the bill.

The federal grants would require "a presumption of release in most cases," and conditions on those releases to be the "least restrictive" that "would reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant and the safety of others in the community."

The bill pushes would-be grant recipients to ensure defendants access to defense attorneys as early in the process as possible.

It would also allocate $5 million to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to track pretrial defendants in state courts.

California state legislators are considering a bill that may implement some of the federal bill's grant conditions. An attempt in the state Assembly failed by one vote last month, but a similar state Senate bill remains alive, and is headed for a vote in the Assembly.

That bill's author, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said in a statement that the federal bill echoes his efforts.

“Every day, the national movement for bail reform is growing,” Hertzberg said. “This bipartisan federal legislation is the latest sign that bail reform is not a partisan issue or a rural or urban issue or a regional issue -- it is an American issue."

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