Yesenia Moya Garay speaks at a rally calling on legislators to reform the cash bail system. (Photo: Michael Lyle)
Rev. Raymond Giddens, the senior pastor of Unity Baptist Church, has had congregants who have been arrested and couldn’t afford to make bail.
Just recently, an 80-year-old member had trouble securing the $3,000 bond that came with his charge. “The church had to come to his rescue to bail him out,” Giddens said.
Activists estimate each day hundreds of people, all presumed innocent, sit in detention facilities in Southern Nevada because they are unable to afford bail. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates about 646,000 people are in local jails across the country and nearly 70 percent on pretrial and haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Giddens joined members from PLAN’s Mass Liberation project, the ACLU of Nevada, the Clark County Black Caucus and Americans for Prosperity in front of the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas to urge lawmakers to overhaul the bail system. PLAN activists also traveled up to Carson City to also call for reforms.
“It’s not just people who discriminate, but the systems that are currently in place,”said Briceida Castro, an organizer with PLAN Action. “The reasons we are not in jail should not depend on our socioeconomic status. Our communities already have everyday struggles and fears. Our criminal justice system should not be one of them.”
There are multiple pieces of legislation being proposed this session that would require judges to look at alternatives to cash bail and release first-time nonviolent offenders on their own recognizance.
Monday was the deadline for individual lawmakers to sponsor bills. None of the legislation listed outright ends the cash bail system, nor are there talks to have such a bill.
However, late Monday evening Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo’s introduced Assembly Bill 325, along with seven other democratic lawmakers, as a substantial overhaul to the way bail works in the state.
While courts can still weigh community safety, the legislation requires judges to look at the least restrictive bail conditions for releasing people accused of any felony other than first degree murder. The bill lays out a structure for judges to follow when considering bail: release on their own recognizance, released with non-financial conditions, released with an unsecured appearance bond or released with secured financial conditions.
Fumo said that judges should look at alternatives such as monitoring devices or house arrest before turning to the last option — a secured bond or a cash bond.
If a judge determines cash bail is the only way to secure a defendant’s appearance, or if it is for the safety of the community, the amount assigned to that person has to be based on the their financial resources. Fumo added that determining if someone is a flight risk shouldn’t depend on their ability to pay a certain amount of money, and in 23 years practicing law he’s seen only one client who has fled.
Under his legislation, defendants also must have a pretrial release hearing no later than 48 hours after their initial appearance. “I’ve had cases in North Las Vegas where they are waiting a week to see a judge,” Fumo said.
If a person fails to appear, the court has to make every attempt to contact them by text message or other forms of communications before issuing an arrest warrant.
Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores, who is a cosponsor on AB325, is working on additional legislation to tackle a “rigged two-tier system.”
Assembly Bill 203 would allow those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors to be released on an unsecured bond, meaning without advance payment. The person can’t be arrested while on bail and can’t have a record of failing to appear.
“If you’re charged for a misdemeanor and you have no history of not showing up to court, you should automatically be released on your own recognizance without the need for cash bail,” Flores said. “Cash bail doesn’t have anything to do with a conviction. Cash bail has to do with you showing up for court.”
Fumo is also cosponsoring AB203.
While Fumo said he would support ending the cash bail system — California recently ended its system — he doesn’t know if all Democrats would be on board. The bail industry and lobbyists representing it have spoken out against reform efforts, saying proposed changes would put communities at risk.
Recent events, which includes a community town hall put on by Assemblyman William McCurdy as well as Monday’s rallies in Northern and Southern Nevada, have helped promote reform legislation, and give people the opportunity to hear how the system operates.
Speaking to a crowd at the Pearson Community Center for McCurdy’s criminal justice town hall, Flores told them what many already know — the current bail system hurts low-income communities and people of color.
“A poor person and a rich person are simultaneously stopped for the exact same crime,” Flores said. “The only similarity in their circumstances are the drive to the jail. The moment they walk into the jail, that experience is going to change.”
Without the ability to afford bail, Flores said people might take plea deals in order to get out of jail. “Or you say, ‘I don’t have the money to pay the cash bail’ you stay in jail longer, lose your job, get behind on payments or can’t pay your car note,” he said. “It is a ripple effect.”
The burden of cash bail on low-income and minority communities was echoed by activists Monday.
“People are being locked up pre-trial with the presumption of innocence, but they are forced to pay high cash fees and fines just for their freedom,” said Yvette Williams, the chair of the Clark County Black Caucus.
Proponents of reform hope to keep pressure on lawmakers ahead of any potential fight to rein in the cash bail system. “We need a justice system that works for our community,” Williams said. “We need to call on our legislators, we need to call on our governor to do the right thing and bring back justice to a system that’s unjust.”
In addition to bail reform, activists called for converting traffic violations from criminal to civil matters and to vacate marijuana convictions — AB192, which is scheduled to be heard March 19, would address the latter.
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