California: State-wide Bail

Working in partnership with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Civil Rights Corps has filed and won numerous state and federal habeas petitions on behalf of people in jail awaiting trial who were detained solely because they were unable to pay money bail. Our work led the California Attorney General to announce that: “The Department of Justice has determined that it will not defend any application of the bail law that does not take into consideration a person’s ability to pay, or alternative methods of ensuring a person’s appearance at trial.”

In January 2018, the California Court of Appeal issued one of the best and most thorough opinions in American history on the subject of bail. The court granted a writ of habeas corpus to our client, 63-year-old Kenneth Humphrey, and, in the process, wrote an opinion that revolutionizes bail setting in California. After decades of unconstitutional detention of the poor, the Humphrey case sets a vital precedent that will go a long way toward ending our unjust money bail system.

In March 2021, a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that California’s pervasive practice of requiring money bail in most cases is unconstitutional in In re Kenneth Humphrey. Thanks to Mr. Humphrey – the petitioner in this case – and his courage to stand up to this unconstitutional system, thousands of people will be free from pretrial incarceration.

Even though it did not weigh in on judicial discretion at the state-level, the Court frequently indicated that pretrial detention should be the exception, not the rule. In this landmark decision, the justices reaffirmed what we know to be true: No person should be kept in a cage solely because they are too poor to buy their freedom.

This is a pivotal moment for expanding racial justice and ending mass incarceration, not only in California but across the United States. Each night in our country, more than 500,000 people – mostly Black and Latinx – are caged in cells awaiting trial only because they are poor. This California Supreme Court ruling is one step closer to bringing this number to 0.