Eleven years ago, Melodie Henderson got into a fight in a bar. That incident became a financial and emotional nightmare for her and her family that lingers to this day.
At age 21, Melodie ended up in jail needing $50,000 in bail to be released – that’s the average amount of bail set in California courts. Her grandparents, with whom she was living with at the time, were unable to cover the entire amount and went into debt to come up with the money they needed.
Before then, Melodie had never been arrested. She was had a full-time job with the County of San Diego and was a part-time student.
She paid her debt to society – accepting a plea bargain and performing community service – but the debt to the bail bond company lasted much longer.
“Watching my grandmother write checks to the bail company for me broke my heart,” she said.
Her experience, one that is all too common in California, inspired her to become an advocate for reform of the state’s unjust and discriminatory money bail system. A system that often requires people who can’t afford to pay their bail to sit in jail while they wait for their cases to go through the courts. A system that has led to people losing their jobs sinking them deeper into poverty and debt, whether or not they are ultimately convicted of a crime. In fact, more than 60 percent of the people in California’s jails haven’t been convicted of any crime or are awaiting sentencing. Most are simply waiting for trial and don’t pose a risk of flight or re-arrest. California’s money bail system also disproportionately effects people of color. Bail amounts tend to be set 35 percent higher for black men and 19 percent higher for Latino men than their white counterparts.
Melodie recently spoke to a crowd of 400 people at an ACLU rally for freedom and justice in front of the state Capitol. She spoke in support of the California Money Bail Reform Act, twin bills introduced by Assemblymember Rob Bonta and Senator Robert Hertzberg to reform a system that puts thousands of people are in jail simply because they can’t afford to post bail.
Under the current system, people who can’t afford to pay the entire bail amount use for-profit bail bonds companies, which charge a 10 percent fee on the total bail. That fee is never returned even if the case is dismissed or people are found innocent. AB 42 and SB 10 would reduce the number of people detained before their trials; and give judges, law enforcement agencies, and pretrial service providers the tools they need to assess the likelihood someone will return to court while their cases move forward. This means people can go home and continue to work and support their families while they await trial.
These bills offer California a common sense approach that other states, such as Kentucky and New Jersey, are already using successfully. For example, in Kentucky, about 70 percent of people are released while they wait for their cases to be resolved and 90 percent of those make all their future court appearances. Ninety-two percent are not re-arrested.
Simply put, it’s not fair that the size of a person’s bank account determines whether he or she sits in jail waiting for justice.
After years of financial struggle, Melodie and her grandparents were able to pay off their debt to the bond company.
“I accept full responsibility for my actions and I am more than grateful for my grandparents who were able to pull some money together to help me in the situation,” Melodie said. “But my heart was heavy every time I went to court and saw young girls and young mothers like myself unable to make bail. I knew they were at risk of losing everything, if they hadn’t already.”
Melodie now owns her own business in Chula Vista and is excited about what the future will bring. But her new outlook on life comes after surviving bouts of depression, credit ruin and job loss.
California must reform its money bail system to help prevent others from getting trapped in a prison of debt.
Chavez-Peterson is executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.