A federal class-action lawsuit claims that San Francisco's bail system is unconstitutional, and it's a charge top cop Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi agrees with. Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization, has brought the case on behalf of two women who were held in pretrial detention before charges against them were dropped. The suit claims that San Francisco has a "wealth-based pretrial detention scheme, which operates to jail some of San Francisco’s poorest residents solely because they cannot pay an arbitrary amount of money."
A press conference was held yesterday announcing the suit.
At issue in the lawsuit is the lose-lose choice a defendant is offered when arrested for a crime and held in pretrial detention. KQED News reports that Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, in speaking of one of the plantiffs in the case, explained why the city's cash-bail system is inherently biased against the poor who cannot afford the high bails.
"The problem that we see in Ms. Patterson’s case and in so many of my clients’ cases is that people are faced with this coercive choice: Go into tremendous amounts of debt, plead guilty to a crime you may not have committed or wait in jail and lose everything that’s dear and meaningful in your life."
It's a powerful argument.
The suit also notes that "arrestees too poor to purchase their freedom are, as a matter of policy, detained for two-to-five days without ever having appeared in court."
It goes on to specifically allege that the city "violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution." It continues that the "Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses have long prohibited imprisoning a person because of the person’s inability to make a monetary payment," and yet many pretrial detainees find themselves in that exact position.
According to The Examiner, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's office did not want to comment on the lawsuit.
The San Francisco Superior Court did issue an official statement:
“By state law, the judges in each county are required to approve an annual bail schedule. The purpose of bail is twofold — to protect the public’s safety and to ensure that the defendant returns to court. Judges may use their discretion in setting bail — higher or lower than the amounts listed on the bail schedule, which serves as a guide.”
Attorneys Phil Telfeyan and Katherine Hubbard are representing the two clients, Crystal Patterson and Riana Buffin.
On the organization's website, Equal Justice Under Law notes that "Every day, there are about 500,000 human beings in American jails solely because they are too poor to make a monetary payment for their release."
In a statement of support, Sheriff Mirkarimi, who is currently up for reelection, says that the "notion that someone's freedom depends on the amount of money they have is anathema to equality and justice."