Saturday, April 30, 2016

How Do You Make The Criminal Justice System Fairer? Ted Lieu Is Working On It


Ted Lieu: "We cannot both be a nation that believes in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, yet incarcerate over 450,000 Americans who have not been convicted of a crime"

When Blue America endorsed Ted Lieu for Congress in 2014 we didn't expect him to just kick back in his prestigious new job and vote correctly. His record of achievement in the California legislature made us certain he would go to Congress as a leader, not a follower. And his peers saw him the same way; he was immediately elected president of the freshman class. And we were right about him. Ted's the opposite of a go-along-to-get-along backbencher and has already been working to solve real problems for real people in his new role, while many of his colleagues get bogged down in partisan bickering that leads nowhere.

In February, Ted introduced the No Money Bail Act, not exactly something any class of wealthy campaign donors is going to get all excited about-- and not an issue Congress has considered before. But it is an issue constituents back in the Los Angeles area have talked with him about. Now there are 27 co-sponsors who have signed onto the bill, including some of Congress' most senior members on issues of criminal justice, like Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Mike Honda (D-CA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Conyers (D-MI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). This week, Ted wrote an OpEd at Talk Poverty about the injustices of the current system and how his bill addresses the problem.
After reading about the recent death of 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton-- who was being held in a New Hampshire jail simply because he couldn’t afford to pay $100 in bail-- my reaction was anger.  Why was Mr. Pendleton held in jail in the first place?  He had not been convicted of a crime, nor did he appear to pose a flight risk or danger to the public. He was locked up simply because he was poor. And he died in a jail cell.

Tragically, stories like his are far too common in America, and they are the reason I have introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2016 to reform our system of pretrial detention.

Last July, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal while driving in Texas. She was put in jail and bail was set at $5,000, an amount she could not afford to pay. Three days later she was found hanged in her cell.  And Qiana Williams, who shared her story at the White House last December and on Capitol Hill this past February, spent weeks in a St. Louis jail because she couldn’t afford to pay court and traffic fees.

Across the country, it comes down to this: People of means are able to pay their way out of jail, while the poor remain behind bars awaiting their day in court.

Even for those who can muster the funds, the money bail system is unfair.

In San Francisco, 29-year-old Crystal Patterson, who gets by on a $12.50-an-hour job, paid a bail bondsman $1,500 plus interest to post her $150,000 bail so she could return home to care for her grandmother.  She also signed an agreement to pay back the $15,000 bond posted by the bail bondsman. Afterwards, the District Attorney dropped the charges, but, though the bail bondsman would have been returned the $150,000 bail, Patterson is unlikely to ever see the money she paid to the bail bond company.

At any given moment, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up without ever having been convicted of a crime.  In my home state of California, more than two-thirds of those in jail haven’t been convicted, a total of more than 42,000 people.

Moreover, even a few days in jail can be devastating for families-- especially those that are already fighting to make ends meet.  Perversely, money bail gives inmates a strong incentive to plead guilty, even when innocent, because they cannot afford bail and need to get back to their families, jobs, or education. Being locked up can also increase an individual’s risk of suicide and depression.

Finally, unnecessary pretrial detention of low-risk defendants is expensive. State and local governments in the U.S. spend an estimated $14 billion annually to incarcerate people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. In contrast, pretrial systems based on risk, rather than wealth, cost on average $7 per day.

For these reasons, most nations consider money bail an obstruction of justice. In fact, the only other country that maintains a large commercial bail bond industry is the Philippines. In the case of our disgraceful bail system, American exceptionalism is decidedly not a good thing.

Any serious effort at criminal justice reform must address our feudal-like bail system, which amounts to modern-day debtors’ prisons.  The “No Money Bail Act of 2016,” which I introduced earlier this year, would eliminate the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release at the federal level, and also would give states three years to switch to alternative systems or else forfeit law enforcement grants.

Justice in America should not be bought and paid for.  For the sake of Jeffrey Pendleton, Sandra Bland, Qiana Williams, and the countless other Americans who have suffered at the hands of our unjust money bail system, it is long past time that the United States join the rest of the civilized world when it comes to pretrial incarceration.
Ted's No Money Bail Act has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Pretrial Justice Institute, The Drug Policy Alliance, The Sentencing Project, The National Legal Aide and Defender Association, and the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies. If you'd like to help Ted in his reelection campaign, he's one of a tiny handful of incumbents Blue America has endorsed this year.

With Republicans running the show in the House, H.R.461 is sitting in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, which is chaired by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and populated primarily with right-wing GOP crackpots-- like Louie Gohmert, Trey Gowdy,and Ken Buck-- who don't see the Justice system in terms of fairness but in terms of retribution and revenge. Two members of the subcommittee, Karen Bass and Judy Chu, have signed on as co-sponsors, but legislation of this nature isn't ever going to get out of committees and subcommittees to even be debated ad voted on until the Republican grip on Congress is broken. That's why we spend so much time here at DWT railing against the incompetent corrupt conservatives who run the DCCC and prevent Democrats from winning back the House. Both Blue America and Ted Lieu have endorsed Lou Vince for the congressional seat currently held by right-wing Republican Steve Knight, who hasn't signed onto Ted's bail bill. Lou Vince, an L.A.P.D. detective, explained why he will sign on and help Ted pass it:
After 21 years on the streets of Los Angeles, I know that our criminal justice system is in sore need of reform. The money bail system is the perfect place to start. The current system disproportionately harms low-income people that often times don't have the means to pay the lowest amount of bail, forcing them to remain in jail. The United States is one of the very few countries in the world that even have this type of system. In the state of California, where our jails are already overcrowded, we can solve two problems with one bill. We can reduce prison overcrowding and take a serious, meaningful step towards addressing the many injustice of our criminal justice system. I would be glad to join Congressman Lieu as a co-sponsor of this important legislation and use my background and experience in the criminal justice system to push strongly for this bill.
But it isn't just congressives Republicans uninterested in helping reform the system. Ostensibly, New Jersey machine candidate Donald Norcross is a Democrat. Like Steve Knight, he has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill either. The progressive running against him in the Camden/Cherry Hill area of South Jersey, Alex Law, in eager to work with Ted on passing this bill. This morning he told us "I fully support Ted Lieu's No Money Bail Act of 2016. Ted is taking courageous action to help those less fortunate in our country. It is plainly obvious that our criminal justice system is broken. Plans like this are an excellent start to make sure not only our criminal justice system improves, but also in that the bill moves our governing philosophy as a nation towards one with more compassion in it. When I get to Washington, this is exactly the kind of policy I would support."

I doubt anyone thought Debbie Wasserman Schultz would ever consider co-sponsoring Ted Lieu's legislation, or even votung for it. She stands firmly behind her campaign donors in the private prison industry and their business model requires keeping cells full, guilt of innocence be damned. Wasserman Schultz's primary challenger this year, reformer Tim Canova, offers South Floridians an entirely different perspective. "I support Ted Lieu’s bill, H.R. 4611, the No Money Bail Act of 2016," he told us yesterday. "The present money bail system punishes the poor, is applied in a racially discriminatory manner, and according to research, fails to prevent nearly half of the most dangerous pretrial detainees from being released without supervision. The present bail system costs taxpayers $14 billion a year, while lining the pockets of the private for-profit prison industry and the politicians who support the prison privatization agenda. According to the bill, pretrial detention should not be based on the ability to pay money as a condition of pretrial release, but instead 'on whether the accused is likely to fail to appear in court is a threat to public safety.' Public safety and the interests of taxpayers both demand that we rethink our costly and ineffective money bail system."

And that's exactly why we're trying to help reform-minded Democrats like Lou Vince, Alex Law and Tim Canova win their races. If you'd like to help, you can follow the thermometer:
Goal Thermometer

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