Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bail and American Justice

In the fall of 1970, I was volunteering with the United Farmworkers Union in Delano, California.  One morning another volunteer informed me that my friend Bob had been arrested by the Delano police the night before and was being held in the Delano jail.  He had been walking home early that morning when the police picked him up and charged him with the attempted break-in of a variety store.  (I've never had any idea why they did this.)

We found out that his bail was $100.00, but being volunteers and without funds, we didn't have the money to pay it.  After visiting the bail bondsman, we needed $20.00 for a bond ($10.00 plus 10%).  After scraping this together, I went over to the Delano jail to check that they had Bob and to inform them that we were arranging bail.  This was about 11:50 am.  When I returned to the bail bondman's office, he had gone to lunch and the office was closed.   At 1:00 pm, I arranged for the bail. The bail bondsman walked over to the jail (across the street) and then returned with the news that Bob had been taken to Bakersfield, thirty miles away, and that I would have to go there to pick him up.

Although I was pretty angry at this, we drove to Bakersfield and eventually got Bob (already in his orange jail uniform).  I don't know what eventually happened in the case, but suspect that the charges were dismissed.    

What reminded me of this was the bond hearing yesterday of George Zimmerman, accused in the death of Trayvon Martin. His bond was set at $150,000.

Presumably in the United States, a person charged is innocent until proven guilty.  Unless he is a flight risk or a danger to the public, shouldn't he be released until his trial?  Why should his freedom depend on the amount of money he can raise?  In my friend's case, he was being held for the lack of $100.00 (or $20.00 bond).

The United States has more people in jail than any other country.  One of the factors in their release is the quality of defense.  Right or wrong, good lawyers get their clients off (or no jail time); with an inexperienced lawyer, the defendant is at the mercy of the prosecution.  Making the ability to pay bail another condition which advantages the wealthy (and keeps the poor in jail), also seems to compromise the idea of  "equal justice".