Growing up in Houston, Texas with five siblings and parents who were all born in Mexico, I learned to appreciate very simple things in a tough neighborhood.
We were anything but rich. My folks taught me what really mattered was hard work. After spending more than 20 years as an officer in the Houston Police Department, I applied that work ethic in my successful campaigns to get elected to City Council and later, as the first Hispanic Sheriff of Harris County — the third largest county in the United States.
On the front lines of law enforcement, however, I learned the unfortunate truth that in our criminal justice system sometimes what really matters is money.
All too often, I’ve seen people stuck behind bars, unable to return to work or provide for their families—simply because they couldn’t afford to pay cash bail. And I’ve seen people who posed serious threats to public safety go free before trial solely because they had enough money in their bank accounts.
That’s why, with nearly three decades dedicated to fighting crime and keeping people safe, I knew that supporting Harris County’s bail reform, which implemented no-cash-pretrial-release for nearly all misdemeanor offenses (with carve outs for domestic violence and repeat DWIs, for example) was right and just.
Now, I encourage my friends in California to implement their own reforms by passing Proposition 25.
Prop. 25 will finally eliminate California’s cash bail system and replace it with a system that prioritizes safety. This is the right approach.
States and jurisdictions from across the country have been taking their own steps to move away from money-based bail. As a nation, we’re collectively waking up to the reality that true justice won’t be found in a system that discriminates against people based on their wealth.
If California approves Prop. 25, it will be perhaps the single greatest victory for criminal justice reform ever put up for public vote.
Politicians in other states will view California as an inspiration to eliminate cash bail in their own states and counties. And the bail bond industry, which has opposed much-needed reforms from coast to coast, will be dealt a powerful blow.
The sad fact is that the for-profit bail bond industry makes millions off the expensive and discriminatory status quo, and sticks taxpayers with the bill. Local jurisdictions pay an estimated $14 billion each year to house people before trial — and already our findings are proving that many don’t need to be there.
Meanwhile, cash bail perpetuates systemic racism within our criminal justice system. Black men are assessed bail amounts 35 percent more expensive than white men with similar criminal histories charged with the same crime. Hispanic men are assessed bail 19 percent more expensive than equivalent white men.
This discriminatory cash-bail practice is one of the reasons that, despite representing less than a third of the overall population, Black and Latino people make up half of all pretrial detainees.
While I remain committed to the values of law and order and have no tolerance for those committing violent crimes or harming our most vulnerable, I cannot accept the historical findings of the cash bail system as simply being “it is what it is” — especially now that we have examples from states like New Jersey that pretrial reform has not caused any immediate harm toward public safety.
Since we’ve implemented bail reforms in Harris County, the once vast gap between white and Black people released before trial has significantly narrowed. And, despite plenty of fear mongering claiming that crime rates would explode, an independent ongoing audit has shown recidivism rates remain flat.
But this isn’t about one state or county’s experience. It’s about a nationwide movement to reimagine our criminal justice system for the better — and it’s hard to imagine that cash bail should have any role to play.
Relying on money to decide whether someone belongs in jail before trial only works to separate the rich from the poor, instead of the truly dangerous from low-risk offenders.
On Election Day, I’ll be watching to see if California can take the next major step in creating a criminal justice system that prioritizes fairness and safety for everyone.
Adrian Garcia is a 23-year veteran of the Houston Police Dept., former Houston City Councilman, former Sheriff of Harris County and current Harris County Commissioner. He welcomes comments from readers.