On Thursday, March 25th, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the current money bail system in the state of California is unconstitutional. The Court upheld Californians’ fundamental right to pretrial liberty and determined that judges must consider a person’s ability to pay, alongside the effectiveness of less restrictive alternatives, when setting bail.
The case, In re Kenneth Humphrey on Habeas Corpus., brought forward by Kenneth Humphrey, illustrated the injustice of our bail system and its devastating impacts, especially to Black communities. Kenneth Humphrey, like so many Black men and women ensnared by the criminal legal system, was confined to a jail cell solely because he couldn’t pay $600,000 cash to buy his freedom. In their decision, the Court found that California violated Kenneth Humphrey’s constitutional rights by not considering non-monetary alternatives and by setting a bail amount which he could not afford.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, Gina Clayton-Johnson, Essie’s Founder and Executive Director said the following;
“Today our movement celebrates an important win. We thank and honor Kenneth Humphrey, his family, and everyone who has worked countless hours to fight for the preservation of our human right to liberty and dignity via this case. Bail has been the mechanism that has made mass incarceration possible. Those who have been detained pretrial know that when you are fighting a case from behind bars, you are more likely to take a plea deal, less likely to win your case, and even if you are eventually found innocent – your family may be left financially devastated.
Women and Black women in particular know all too well the psychological damage and life-changing impacts of having your loved one put in jail or prison. Fifty percent of women who have ever owed money to a bail bonds agency have faced housing insecurity. Black women’s household assets have decreased by 64% as a result of a loved one’s incarceration. And 1 in 4 women has a family member behind bars.
This decision arrives as Californians are reexamining our complicity in the mass incarceration crisis, the war of drugs, and the warehousing of human beings in cages. Today’s Supreme Court decision matters for the families of incarcerated people and for all those who remain behind bars despite being legally innocent. It matters in a history of child separation, class inequity, and racial bias that disproportionately harms Black women.”
For over 3 years, Essie, Silicon Valley DeBug, and many others have been at work on a state legislative level to introduce new bail policies. Today’s decision is a reminder of how much is possible when we fight and how much work is left to do. As we continue our fight for pretrial justice and liberty we know this:
- That the crisis of pretrial detention, despite this decision, continues. Judges across this state are still setting astronomically high bail amounts and choosing to unnecessarily detain people who should be granted liberty. We must hold every judge in every court accountable in following the ability to pay standards this decision sets forth.
- Giving individual judges carte blanche discretion to determine our loved ones’ right to freedom is not the answer. We count on leadership from our legislature and the courts to make clear what the civil and human rights standards must be
- The voices of Black women and Black communities are critical in this fight. Our current bail practices are reminiscent of other moments in history when Black people have had to buy the freedom of our loved ones. We must ensure that any policy change prioritizes the eradication of racial bias and discrimination from our system.