U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, has introduced bipartisan legislation to prod states to reform their bail systems, reports the San Jose Mercury News. The new bill, which Harris co-wrote with Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and was introduced yesterday, would spend $10 million annually for three years on grants for states that reform their bail systems.
Most courts in the U.S. require money bail, holding defendants in jail before trial until they pay. Advocates say cash bail is unfair to poor defendants who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Under Harris’ bill — her first major bipartisan legislation — states would be eligible for a grant if they enact reforms such as replacing money bail with systems based on assessing a defendant’s risk to the community, releasing inmates before trial in most cases, or appointing public defenders at the earliest stages of pretrial detention.
In a New York Times commentary, Harris and Paul wrote, “Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally. Yet that doesn’t happen for many of the 450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail.” They said their proposal encourages better data collection, empowers states to build on best practices, and holds them accountable.
Some states have already moved to change their approach to bail. New Jersey, for example, is shifting away from “money-based” pretrial justice through pretrial risk assessment in a system NPR describes in the latest episode of its “Planet Money” podcasts as a “model” for the nation.