Thursday, October 29, 2015 · by Tamara Aparton
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Oct. 29, 2015
Co-Founder and Executive Director
Equal Justice Under Law
San Francisco, CA — A class action lawsuit filed in federal court yesterday seeks to end the practice of money bail in San Francisco. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, takes aim at San Francisco’s “wealth-based detention scheme.”
Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization that fights systemic inequalities in the legal system, is suing the City and County of San Francisco and the State of California on behalf of San Francisco inmate Riana Buffin. Ms. Buffin was arrested on Monday, October 26, on allegations of grand theft of personal property and is currently detained in the county jail because she cannot afford her $30,000 bail.
“San Francisco is detaining Ms. Buffin not because she is a risk to public safety, but because she is too poor to buy her freedom,” said Phil Telfeyan, co-founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law. “San Francisco’s use of a generic bail schedule creates two criminal justice systems — one in which wealthy arrestees can purchase their freedom and another in which poor arrestees must languish in jail pending trial for even minor offenses.”
San Francisco’s fixed bail schedule, set by San Francisco Superior Court judges and ranking among the most expensive in the state, sets bail amounts based on offense and does not take individual circumstances or public safety into account, according to the lawsuit. Approximately 50 people per day and 18,000 people per year are booked into San Francisco County Jail. About 85 percent of inmates have not yet been convicted. Because they cannot afford bail, they can remain locked up for months while awaiting trial, often losing their housing, jobs, or children.
The lawsuit argues that appropriate conditions of release — including pretrial release services and text message or phone call reminders of court dates — can save taxpayer dollars while also increasing public safety and court appearance rates. The lawsuit also calls for appropriate alternatives to pretrial incarceration such as electronic monitoring, intervention and rehabilitation programs, stay-away orders, and home detention.
San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, whose office will represent Ms. Buffin in her criminal case, said clients who are incarcerated are at a disadvantage in the courtroom. Pretrial detention hampers defendants’ ability to participate in their own defense, and it can even result in worse outcomes at trial. “Put simply, being unable to afford bail makes you more likely to be found guilty — even if you’re innocent,” Boudin said. “Worse still, pretrial incarceration can motivate someone to plead guilty solely to lessen their jail time.”
Since the beginning of 2015, Equal Justice Under Law has filed nine class action challenges to money bail systems in seven states. As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have reformed their practices to end the use of secured money bail for new arrestees.
According to Mr. Telfeyan, Equal Justice Under Law’s lawsuit in San Francisco is historic due to the support of County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. “Having the support of the chief law enforcement official in the county highlights that detaining arrestees based on wealth-status not only violates the Equal Protection Clause, but also is bad policy,” said Mr. Telfeyan. “Sheriff Mirkarimi’s recognition of the inequities of money bail is a testament to his office’s commitment to practices that both are fair and protect the public, and it is a model to which law enforcement agencies across the country should strive.”
Sheriff Mirkarimi, who submitted a declaration stating his office’s position on the lawsuit, stated that “the use of monetary conditions to detain pretrial defendants penalizes indigent arrestees solely based on their wealth status. The notion that someone’s freedom depends on the amount of money they have is anathema to equality and justice.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi noted that the class action lawsuit, if successful, will have widespread benefits throughout the county. “For too long, arrestees who are indigent have been jailed for no other reason than their inability to afford bail,” Adachi said. “Now is the time for an end to money bail and for an end to the needless and unjust practice of detention based on wealth-status.”
The lawsuit can be found here.
The declaration of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, filed with the lawsuit, can be found here.
The declaration of Public Defender Jeff Adachi, filed with the lawsuit, can be found here.