Dear NPPJ partners,
When Kenneth Humphrey walked out of a San Francisco County jail in May 2018, it was the culmination of a yearlong fight that led to major reforms in the state’s bail laws.
Humphrey, a 66-year-old Black man, had spent nearly a year sitting in jail as he awaited trial in his case, unable to pay the $350,000 bail set by a judge to buy his freedom.
Rather than languish in jail, Humphrey decided to fight back against the system he felt was unfair and unjust to those who couldn’t afford their outrageously high bail amounts.
With the tireless work of his public defense attorney, Anita Nabha with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Civil Rights Corps, they fought the unjust bail practices to the state supreme court, which ruled this past March that judges must take into consideration a person’s financial situation when setting bail.
The historic ruling became known as the “Humphrey Decision.”
Humphrey’s case reveals two truths about our criminal legal system.
1. People jailed pretrial benefit when they stand with a defense attorney who isn’t crippled under burdensome caseloads that often contribute to a meet-‘em-and-plead-‘em legal system.
2. Wealth-based pretrial detention hurts people simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom.
Millions of people are detained pretrial each year across the United States – at a time when they’re still presumed innocent –because of their high bail amounts. The vast majority of those are from communities of color, which have been disproportionally harmed for decades by our legal system.
But we are seeing progress across the nation as states reduce their reliance on money bail or do away with it altogether.
New York has eliminated money bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, resulting in a decline in people detained pretrial. New Jersey passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which led to a 20 percent reduction in the state’s pretrial jail population its first year.
Yet for all that progress, there are states like Texas that have passed new laws that rely on draconian bail practices based in fear and not rooted in data.
“What we’re seeing in Texas is not bail reform, it’s bail rollbacks,” said Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships with the Vera Institute of Justice. [Vera is an NPPJ partner.]
This past year shows how much collective progress we can make at reforming the pretrial system—and, thus, improving the lives of millions. But it also shows how much work remains.
We’re proud to stand with you as we continue the fight.
The National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Our Top Stories of 2021
It’s possible, according to a report by the Center of Court Innovation. Riker’s Island Jail is New York City’s most populous jail, but has been plagued for years with crumbling infrastructure, horrid conditions, and violence. That’s led city leaders, such as former Mayor Bill de Blasio, to call for its closure. The report by CCI, which partnered with the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, addresses racial inequalities in the city’s criminal justice system and notes how the city can focus on “ending case delays, reducing bail, reforming parole, investing in mental health and treatment, and prioritizing proven alternative approaches.”
“If it bleeds, it leads” is a longstanding trope in news coverage. So often the nightly news or front-page headlines detail crime and violence across America. Alec Karakatsanis wants journalists to think about things a little differently. We spoke to the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, an NPPJ partner, about problems with the media’s status quo and how it can provide better coverage on community safety and criminal justice.
“Instead of focusing on more rigorous, holistic measures of safety, the media is stuck in this trap of focusing on so-called crime data or crime rates for violent crime. That leaves out the vast majority of threats to our health, safety, and well-being,” Karakatsanis said.
As the youngest person on Berkeley City Council, Rigel Robinson is already making national headlines. In July, Robinson, 24, introduced a proposal to remove police officers from conducting traffic stops and instead hand the task to a newly created department consisting of unarmed city workers. Robinson, a UC Berkeley graduate, had seen the headlines over the years of police officers killing Black drivers and felt disheartened. After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, he felt called to do something, and found himself in a unique position to do so. “A serious discussion of the role of modern policing is incomplete without a focus on traffic enforcement,” Robinson said.
Stephen Hanlon, former general counsel the National Association of Public Defense, has long said the nation doesn’t have a criminal justice system, but a “criminal processing system.” Hanlon, in partnership with the American Bar Association, launched a study in Louisiana that found public defenders were carrying caseloads five times larger than the national standards. (Hanlon has done similar studies in other states.) The burdensome caseloads aren’t unique to Louisiana. Across the United States, public defender offices are facing budget shortfalls, overworked attorneys, and limited resources in defending the most vulnerable. Now, Hanlon is dedicating his career transforming “the entire criminal processing system and turn it into a criminal justice system.”
Hanlon has made fighting for public defenders his life’s work. In the past decade, he has conducted state-by-state studies analyzing their public defense systems, all with the intent to create a more equitable and fair system.
“If an obstetrician had five times as much work as they could handle competently, terrible things would happen,” Hanlon said. “If a public defender has five times as much work as they could handle competently, terrible things would happen.”
With a data-driven focus, public defender offices across the U.S. will be better equipped to fight for more funding and better resources, Hanlon says, which includes pay parity among prosecutors and public defenders. Leading the charge is a bill before Congress. The EQUAL Defense Act, first introduced by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (now Vice President Harris) in 2019, would provide federal funding to public defender offices nationwide. But those dollars would come with stipulations, including that each office implements a case management system to actively track timekeeping and caseloads.
As someone who oversees the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s office—and the largest in Texas—Ed Gonzalez said he wants to stay ahead of the curve as new ideas and research shape the criminal justice system. As sheriff, he has advocated for reforming Harris County’s bail practices, created a pre-book diversion desk at the county jail, and is training his deputies to better handle situations when someone is in mental distress. “Policing in this modern era is on the frontlines of three very important issues. And that’s mental illness, addiction, and poverty. And we’re not going to incarcerate our way out of those issues,” Gonzalez said.
Meet Kenneth Humphrey, a 66-year-old man who was arrested for stealing a $5 bottle of cologne and held on a $350,000 cash bail. He was jailed for nearly a year without ever being convicted of a crime simply because he couldn’t afford his bail. So, he fought back. And in March of this year, the California Supreme Court held that setting unaffordable bail amounts is unconstitutional. The unanimous ruling has created a “tidal shift” in California’s pretrial system.
When George Gascón took office as the district attorney for Los Angeles County, he immediately announced a series of reforms that would reshape the criminal justice system of the most populous county in the United States. No more cash bail for all misdemeanors and non-violent crimes. He’d stop enforcing California’s three-strikes law, end the use of the death penalty, and create a review board to hold law enforcement officials more accountable. Gascón said his vision for reforms is driven by data and his 40-plus-year law enforcement career.