California’s reparations task force is pushing for the state to end cash bail and the prosecution of low-level crimes as part of its campaign to pressure the Golden State to make amends for slavery and anti-Black racism.
The task force, which was created by state legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020, formally approved last weekend its final recommendations to the California Legislature, which will then decide whether to enact the measures and send them to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
The recommendations included several proposals related to criminal justice, including the elimination of cash bail.
“The cash bail system is at the core of many of the class and race-based inequities in the criminal legal system,” the task force wrote in its proposal. “The task force accordingly recommends that the legislature take all steps necessary to definitively end cash bail.”
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Democrats and progressive prosecutors across the country have in recent years taken steps to end cash bail, arguing it’s unfair to low-income people who can’t afford it. According to the committee’s final report outlining its proposals, a cash bail system allows those with resources to return to their homes and jobs while others remain in jail before their trials despite the presumption of innocence.
“Pretrial detention can last months and even years, during which incarcerated individuals suffer countless harms, including deteriorating mental and physical health, risk of sexual violence and lasting trauma,” the task force wrote. “These harms exert significant pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains in order to be released from custody rather than fighting the charges at trial.”
Many Republicans and other critics counter that bail helps keep people from committing crimes and that eliminating it will only incentivize more criminal behavior. A recent study found that criminal offenders let out with low bail or at no cost under zero bail policies re-offended more often than those who posted bail.
Still, the Newsom-backed panel says racial disparities persist in pretrial detention outcomes, arguing the setting of bail hurts Black defendants more than White defendants.
As a result, the committee wrote that California should codify “a presumption of pretrial release in all criminal cases,” increase funding for “non-law enforcement pretrial services agencies to improve pretrial release support programs,” and implement a “statewide zero bail schedule.” Additionally, the task force calls for the legislature to create a framework for compensating people held before trials who were later acquitted or exonerated.
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The task force’s proposal to eliminate cash bail appears to be part of a broader push to lessen penalties for criminals. Indeed, later in its report, the committee outlines what it describes as “overpolicing” of Black Americans before calling for California to stop prosecuting low-level crimes.
“Given the devastating impacts of this kind of over-policing, the task force recommends that the legislature prohibit law enforcement from criminally enforcing public disorder infractions and other low-level crimes,” the task force wrote.
“Instead, a public health and safety institution, without criminal arrest or prosecution powers, would enforce prohibitions such as sleeping on the sidewalk, fare evasion, spitting on the train and similar transit-related or other public disorder violations that criminalize poverty.”
The task force goes on to propose those arrested or criminally prosecuted for such violations should be allowed to sue for damages or automatically receive a damages payout. Similarly, the report calls for the legislature to establish a way to compensate those previously convicted of loitering with intent to commit prostitution.
Such proposals wouldn’t be new for California, which has in recent years pursued several initiatives deemed soft on crime by critics.
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The state, for example, has changed crimes like theft of goods under $950 and drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, reducing California’s prison population by 13,000 inmates. Prisoners are also able to shorten their sentences through good behavior.
In recent years, lawmakers in California have voted to limit gang-related sentence enhancements, allow loitering related to prostitution and automatically seal conviction and arrest records for most offenders not convicted of another felony within a four-year period. A bill under consideration would prevent police from using K-9s for arrests or crowd control.
The task force additionally recommends the legislature create a system to pay California inmates a “fair market value” for their labor while in prison. These were among a host of other proposals related to criminal justice contained in the report — from abolishing the death penalty to abolishing certain legal protections for police officers that shield them from liability in many cases while carrying out their law enforcement duties.
The recommendations are part of an effort by the task force to remedy what the panel describes as an “unjust legal system” toward Black Californians.
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