Aug08

Skin Color: An Unjust Determinant of Fate

Categories // LA Focus, Top Stories Tuesday, 08 August 2017

Skin Color: An Unjust Determinant of Fate

Consider this: over five million American children have had a parent incarcerated at some point during their childhood, including 503,000 children here in California.

Overreliance on incarceration is tearing families apart and wreaking havoc on our communities, disproportionately affecting people of color.

While California has begun to make significant strides to address this problem and alleviate the toll it has taken on families throughout the state, there is much more we must do to ensure that California’s justice system is fair and equitable. Nowhere is that more apparent than with California’s unjust money bail system and sentencing enhancement schemes.

Every year, California’s money bail system keeps thousands of people in jail before they get their day in court – all because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom. Basing people’s freedom on their wealth – not  public safety – denies people equal access to justice and fails to protect communities. Unable to afford money bail, many people stay in jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years while their case moves forward, or plead guilty to a crime they may not have committed. Some people pool their limited resources to pay a for-profit bail bonds company a non-refundable 10% fee based on their total bail amount, a fee they do not get back even if their case is dismissed or they are found innocent. Meanwhile, wealthy people buy their freedom, even if they pose an actual safety risk to the community.

Because Black and Latino people are more likely than white people to be stuck in jail while their case moves forward, money bail fuels already egregious racial disparities in the justice system. In fact, research shows that Black men are assigned bail amounts that are 35% higher than amounts for white men accused of similar offenses. Research also shows that when people are jailed while their case moves forward, they run a higher risk of being convicted, taking a plea deal, and receiving harsher sentences. With this in mind, it is easy to see how people of color are more likely to be ensnared in money bail’s mass incarceration trap. It is time to put an end to this.

What we need are individualized assessments of each person’s case to make sure that no one is in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom. In other states, judges make individualized assessments in each case, ensuring that people are detained only based on public safety concerns not the size of their bank account. SB 10 will make that happen in California and ensure that people have equal access to justice and freedom.

Similarly, it is time for California to revise its excessive sentencing enhancements which stack decades of prison time on top of the sentence imposed for the underlying crime. We should start with our mandatory gun enhancement law which bar judges from taking into account someone’s individual case and circumstances during sentencing. For most other sentence enhancements, judges can decide whether to apply or not apply the enhancement when it’s fair and just to do so, based on the circumstances of the case before them. But with the 10-20-life gun enhancement, California law expressly forbids judges from exercising any discretion to consider the facts of the case forcing them to impose the enhancement even when they think it’s not fair or right.

These mandatory extreme enhancements do not make Californians safer and disparately affect people of color. Although originally created to deter gun crime, years later there is still no evidence to show that enhancements have done that. Instead, research has shown that enhancements like these have fueled prison overcrowding and our skyrocketing rates of incarceration — without reducing gun-related crimes. Research also shows that prosecutors are more likely to charge people of color with mandatory sentence enhancements than they are whites, even for the same crime. Like with money bail and pretrial detention, prosecutors leverage the threat of enhancements to extract guilty pleas from people who are eager to return to their families, jobs, and homes, including innocent people.

Together, California’s money bail system and excessive sentencing enhancements have compromised the integrity of our justice system and perpetuated the state’s mass incarceration crisis. SB 10 and SB 620 can help right these wrongs.

We ask Assemblymember Gipson to act in the name of fairness and equity, and vote YES on both bills.

Natasha Minsker is the Director of the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy & Policy.

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