For years, the cash bail system has caused countless Black defendants to sit in jail without a trial. Opponents of the system have decried it as racist and unjust, saying it is designed to keep people in jail. But last month, those in favor of bail reform received a glimmer of hope from San Francisco’s recently elected District Attorney (DA).
Just two weeks after he was sworn in San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin fulfilled one of his campaign promises and eliminated cash bail as a mandate for pretrial release in criminal cases. Before he became the city’s top prosecutor, Boudin was a staunch bail reform advocate.
“For years I’ve been fighting to end this discriminatory and unsafe approach to pretrial detention,” Boudin said in a statement. “From this point forward, pretrial detention will be based on public safety, not on wealth.”
Labeled “a political outsider preaching a gospel of criminal justice reform” by The Nation, Boudin’s own parents were jailed when he was younger. During his inaugural address, he was careful not to take credit for starting the bail reform movement.
“I want to be clear – this vision, these ideas – they are not novel. We did not win because we pioneered this vision. We won because we amplified the voices that for decades have resisted mass incarceration. Finally, our city, and so much of our country is ready to leave the racist, inhumane, ineffective ‘tough on crime’ policies in the past.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Black defendants in the city paid an average of $120 in bail, while white defendants paid an average of $10. Across the country, countless Black defendants are sitting in jail without trial because they don’t have bail money.
Kalief Browder (May he continue to rest in peace) was one such case. The young man, once full of promise, sat in one of New York’s most notorious prisons, Rikers Island, for almost three years waiting for a trial that never came. During his time in prison, he was abused and spent enormous amounts of time in solitary confinement. After several attempts after his release, Browder succeeded in committing suicide in 2015.
Boudin desires to prevent more cases like that from happening. Instead of the cash bail system, they will use a risk assessment tool to determine flight and safety risk when deciding whether a defendant should be freed.
Some praise his efforts, while others think he is making a mistake that will jeopardize the safety of residents.
“District Attorney Boudin’s policy is a great step towards a more just system,” said John Raphling, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “For too long, prosecutors have used money bail and pretrial incarceration as leverage to pressure people to plead guilty regardless of actual guilt. Boudin’s policy favoring pretrial release is a welcome change and will help build the credibility of our courts.”
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“Mr. Boudin is in the process of building the largest criminal justice revolving door imaginable, and San Franciscans will pay a heavy price for it,” said Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “Relying solely on an arbitrary math equation regarding who remains in custody and who gets out early will endanger residents and police officers but it sure will make career criminals and gang members happy.”
Boudin is confident his new policy will help, not hurt, his city. In a series of tweets responding to Attorney General William Barr’s denouncing of the progressive policies he supports, Boudin doubled down on his positions.
“For too long, the criminal legal system has been a vehicle used to uphold white supremacy, racism and classism. … Investing in youth & communities, rather than jails & prisons, makes our cities safer. Keeping families together, rather than separating them with cages set up by the prison industrial complex, makes our cities safer,” Boudin tweeted.
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