Paying Bail Can Leave Innocent People in Deep Debt After an Arrest

But a class-action lawsuit filed in California seeks to end the bail system.
Bail agents across the street from San Francisco's Hall of Justice. (Photo: Todd Lappin/Creative Commons)
Dec 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When no charges are filed following an arrest, it can look like a “Get out of Jail Free” card. Without charges, there are no future legal fees, no trial, no potential prison time. But for some who are arrested and never charged, there can still be a very steep cost: bail.

Take the case of Crystal Patterson, who was arrested for assault in San Francisco back in October. Unable to pay her $150,000 bail or put up equal assets, the 39-year-old paid a bail bonds company $15,000 to post bail for her. That allowed her to get home to her ailing grandmother, who needed her care, but it also left her with a significant debt that would quickly gather interest.

No charges were filed, but Patterson by no means got off clean. Now, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of her and other inmates argues that the cash bail system used in San Francisco and across California is unconstitutional.

“The bail system in most states is a two-tiered system,” Phil Telfeyan, founder of Equal Justice Under Law, the nonprofit law clinic that filed the lawsuit, told The Associated Press. “One for the wealthy and one for everyone else.”

A win in California could help to create changes in other states as well—but this is far from being the only effort being undertaken to change the cash bond system. Across the country, criminal justice reformers are seeking to change bail, with proposals that include a credit-card-based system, bail funds to help poor defendants, and abolishing the cash bail system altogether, as the California lawsuit seeks to do. Not only does it put an undue financial burden on those who cannot afford to post bail, but it can also result in innocent people being put in prison.

“When you’re in jail on bail, you’re far more likely to plead guilty—and to worse sentences—whether you’re innocent or not,” Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, recently told TakePart. The cash bail system is used in nearly all county jails across the country, while those facing federal charges for nonviolent offenses can go free without posting bail ahead of trial. Federal suspects charged with violent crimes can be denied bail.

While there can be a high personal cost for those faced with either posting bail or staying in jail—and potentially losing wages or being fired from a job altogether—and taxpayers have to foot the bill for those who do remain behind bars, there is opposition to reforming the bail system. The California Bail Agents Association filed paperwork last week in opposition to the San Francisco lawsuit, according to the AP.

Come January, Equal Justice Under Law is expected to request the suspension of cash bail in San Francisco while the lawsuit is being resolved.