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“Not in it for Justice” – How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People

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“Not in it for Justice” – How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People

11th April 2017


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On the night of November 2, 2015, Maria Soto’s 18-year-old son Daniel went out with friends and did not come home. At 1:30 p.m. the next day, Maria finally got a call: Daniel had been stabbed and was in the hospital—and was under arrest.

A man had accosted Daniel and his friends outside of a restaurant. They had fought, and the man pulled a knife. Cut and bleeding, Daniel staggered up to a police officer, who called an ambulance and arrested him. Apparently, the man with the knife had gotten to the officer first.


Once he arrived at the hospital, Daniel received minimal medical treatment—Advil for pain and occasional new dressings for his wound. On November 10, he was taken to court, where he pled “not guilty” to a felony assault charge. The judge set bail at $30,000.

Maria, a single mother who worked as a stenographer, made enough to pay rent and bills for herself and her two sons, but had no savings and no property to sell or use as collateral. No bail bondsmen would give her a payment plan she could afford.


Maria felt horrible, knowing her son was hurting, locked up in jail, and there was nothing she could do to help him. “It was terrible. He’s my son. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I just worried about him.”

Meanwhile, Daniel also could not sleep, due to the pain from his injury and the hard jail bed. He was assigned a top bunk and struggled to climb up to it. Sometimes pus would ooze from his wound due to the exertion. He asked his mother to bail him out, but understood she could not come up with the money. “I just had to ride it out,” Daniel said. He missed school and slipped behind in his studies. On Thanksgiving, Maria and the rest of the family ate their meal without him.

Finally, on December 17, over six weeks after his arrest, Daniel had his preliminary hearing—the first opportunity in court for the judge to hear proof of the crime. The judge dismissed the case, saying there was no evidence he committed a crime. Daniel was able to go home, but he had lost a semester of school and a month-and-a-half of his life to jail for a crime he did not commit, all because his family did not have money to pay for his freedom.

Tens of thousands of people arrested for a wide range of crimes spend time locked up in jail because they do not post bail. Nearly every offense in California is bail-eligible, yet many defendants cannot afford to pay. In California, the majority of county jail prisoners have not been sentenced, but are serving time because they are unable to pay for pretrial release.

This report concludes that California’s system of pretrial detention keeps people in jail who are never found guilty of any crime. The state jails large numbers of people for hours and days against whom prosecutors never even file criminal charges. People accused of crimes but unable to afford bail give up their constitutional right to fight the charges because a plea will get them out of jail and back to work and their families. Judges and prosecutors use custody status as leverage to pressure guilty pleas. As one Californian who went into debt to pay fees on $325,000 bail for a loved one who was acquitted said, the actors in California’s bail system are “not in it for justice.”

Report by the Human Rights Watch

  • “Not in it for Justice” – How California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System Unfairly Punishes Poor People
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