Class action lawsuit seeks end to monetary bail
A class action lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court that claims San Francisco’s wealth-based pretrial detention system unfairly targets low-income inmates.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office ardently support the lawsuit, filed on behalf of San Francisco County Jail inmates against the city as well as the state of California.
The lawsuit is the latest to be filed nationwide by the non-profit civil rights organization Equal Justice Under Law.
Phil Telfeyan, co-founder and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said eight lawsuits filed this year have already resulted in settlements that did away with secured money bail for new arrestees in various cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Telfeyan said San Francisco, however, is historic in that the sheriff is staunchly opposed to the current system of arbitrary bail amounts that grant the wealthy freedom while stripping the poor of their liberties.
Mirkarimi said today that between 75 and 85 percent of the county’s inmates are jailed before trial because they can’t post bail.
Mirkarimi said pre-trial electronic monitoring has a high success rate and would save taxpayers 90 percent of the cost of housing an inmate.
Additional pretrial release services, as well as intervention, rehabilitation, home detention, and stay-away orders, could also be used for first-time, non-violent offenders.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office reached out to Equal Justice Under the Law for help on the issue of pretrial detention in the city.
Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin said clients who are put in jail suffer significant risks to their health, housing, jobs, and especially the custody of their children.
“Everyday in court, I have clients who face a coercive choice — plead guilty now to get released from jail or maintain your innocence and stay in jail,” Boudin said.
He said the bail system is prejudiced in favor of wealthy individuals and that his clients, who have been assigned to him because they cannot afford a private attorney, face discrimination based on their financial situations.
He said it also makes it significantly more difficult to mount a defense on their behalf. Clients who remain in jail leading up to their trial are monitored when they talk on the phone or send letters and can’t work as closely with their attorneys on their case as a person who has been released.
R’reeana Maxwell, a bail bondswoman at New Century Bail Bonds, located across the street from the county jail at 850 Bryant St., said that while the lawsuit certainly threatens her job, she’s happy to hear that change is brewing.
“It really is horrible when you have to tell someone that you can’t help them because of their financial situation,” Maxwell said.
Tiki Maxwell, the company’s owner and R’reeana’s mother, however, said to her the lawsuit raises concerns about how the city will decide who is a public threat and who isn’t, who is a flight risk and who isn’t.
She said she worries implicit prejudices might arise in the proposed system.
But Telfeyan said that while there is a possibility of implicit bias, at least there would no longer be explicit bias built into the system.
Furthermore, he said the U.S. Constitution protects against such prejudice.
In Washington, D.C., which doesn’t have a monetary bail system, 85 percent of arrestees are released pretrial, in comparison to San Francisco’s 75 to 85 percent of arrestees who are not released pretrial.
Nationwide, Telfeyan said roughly 80 percent of those arrested in the federal system are released pre-trial.
Telfeyan said the lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of the named plaintiffs, Riana Buffin and Crystal Patterson, and all other inmates in San Francisco County Jail, would ensure that they aren’t explicitly discriminated against in the criminal justice system based on their financial situation.
Both Buffin and Patterson were arrested within the last week and couldn’t afford to bail out of jail. Buffin faced $30,000 bail while Patterson faced $150,000 bail.
Since the filing of the lawsuit, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has failed to move forward with charges against them and both have been released.
Telfeyan said that in the cities where the bail system has been removed, capital offenses are denied release, ensuring public safety.
He said the public can be sure that serial offenders, mass murders and other threats to public safety won’t be released on their own recognizance, and that similarly to the federal system, the wealthy will not be able to buy their way out of jail prior to their trial.
Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said that the “fundamental oppressiveness” makes it difficult for the indigent to easily participate in mounting their defense yet “judges continue to demand unjustified bail amounts.” Under state law, San Francisco judges are required to use the fixed bail schedule, which is why the state is also a target of the lawsuit.
“We are incarcerating people based on their bank accounts and financial wherewithal,” Gonzalez said.