Activists call on lawmakers to end the cash bail system at a rally in Las Vegas in March. (Photo: Michael Lyle).
When California looked at ending its cash bail system, many criminal justice reformers and civil rights organizers were excited about proposed legislation.
Until they weren’t.
A bill passed in 2018 eliminates cash bail in California — implementation is on hold until 2020 — but some early backers pulled support along the way because they feared too many people would still be left sitting in jail.
Similarly in Nevada, groups organized in support of overhauling the state’s bail system. No legislation to end cash bail was ever on the table, but reform advocates did support other measures, until they were watered down.
“We didn’t want to repeat what happened in California, which started out with a good bill with a lot of community support,” said Leslie Turner, the organizer for PLAN Action’s mass liberation project. “Because of amendments and editing by legislators, it turned into a bill that didn’t make sense. We were hypervigilant and didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes (as California).”
Assembly Bill 125, the bail reform bill that came closest to passing before dying in the session’s last days, mandated custody review hearings within 72 hours, and judges would have been required to consider the least restrictive bail conditions. The legislation would not have applied to first degree murder cases.
PLAN Action, the Clark County Black Caucus, NAACP Las Vegas and Faith Organizing Alliance, all groups lobbying for bail reform, opposed the legislation because it would still leave people in jail for days awaiting bail hearings.
“(Lawmakers) made all these changes to satisfy the district attorneys and they made all these changes to satisfy the courts,” she said. “They didn’t factor in how these changes were going to play out for people who end up behind bars. That was our red line. The sacrificial lamb was going to be the community.”
Instead, lawmakers passed Senate Joint Resolution 11 to create an interim committee to study pretrial release of defendants in criminal cases, which Turner said is a better option and could potentially lead to substantive changes.
In a session when some criminal justice measures moved forward, such as restoring voting rights of felons and compensating those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, Turner said the fight to overhaul cash bail is about a bigger picture.
“The (criminal justice bills) that were passed were important and restorative,” she said. “But we are trying to create systemic changes.”
‘If you have the money, you can get out of jail’
Over the last year, PLAN’s Mass Liberation Project has raised money to bail out people sitting in jail for infractions as minor as traffic violations. Turner said often times people can’t afford bail of less than $1,000.
Most recently, during Father’s Day weekend, the group paid the bail for three fathers.
However, that’s just a drop in the bucket.
In Southern Nevada, 67 percent of the Clark County Detention Center inmates in 2017 were there pretrial — not convicted — according to the 2017 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Detention Services Division report. That amounts to about 2,800 people in CCDC on any given day.
Robert Langford, a local attorney who is part of the bail reform coalition, said there is no local data on the reasons why people are in jail, the racial breakdown of who is sitting behind bars or the costs of keeping the jails full of people prior to their conviction.
Additionally, there is no analysis indicating cash bail keeps the community safer. “You can be the most violent, heinous criminal, but if you have the money, you can get out of jail,” he said.
Raising money for bail is one thing. Changing a system that causes jails to be filled with people — often low income and people of color — is another.
In 2018, PLAN Action, alongside other groups and communities of color, focused attention on the race for district attorney with the goal to elect Langford over incumbent Steve Wolfson. Across the country, criminal justice reform advocates have tried similar strategies to embed progressive prosecutors.
While Langford lost the election, Turner said energy from that campaign was channeled into a coalition determined to overhaul the bail industry. Comprised of public defenders, elected officials, civil rights groups and criminal justice reform activists, some crucial members of the coalition, Turner said, are people directly hurt by the bail system.
They looked at national data, talked with experts and examined reforms that passed in other states. From that, Turner said they sent suggested policy language to Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who was planning to take on bail reforms during the session.
Assembly Bill 325, Fumo’s bill, required judges to look at the least restrictive bail conditions when releasing people accused of any felony other than first-degree murder. The bill outlined 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.
Many reformers still didn’t think the legislation went far enough.
“One of the things we wanted was automatic release for misdemeanors,” Turner said. “What we wanted was a straightforward release.”
Marc Gabriel, a bail bondsman, said the bill tied judges’ hands by making cash bail the last option and would open the door to violent offenders being released. He agrees that people on traffic offenses should be released on their own recognizance, but contends that is already happening. “People aren’t languishing in jail because of traffic tickets,” he said.
Even Fumo’s bill couldn’t muster enough support — though it was exempt from deadlines, it died during the session.
Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal later introduced AB 125, the much weaker legislation that stayed alive longest at the session before ultimately failing at the end. “One minute we were working out details (on AB 325) and the next I was told we were going with AB 125 instead,” Fumo said.
Parts of Fumo’s bill were plucked out and added to the new legislation, but some still saw the new version as watered down and quickly soured on it.
The coalition, Turner added, wanted legislation to make sure nonviolent offenders charged with alleged misdemeanors could be released on their own recognizance — not including people charged with driving under the influence, domestic violence or violating temporary protection orders. “The DAs wouldn’t even get on board with that,” Turner said.
As many have pointed out about most pieces of criminal reform legislation, no bill was going to pass if it wasn’t approved by district attorney lobbyists — especially with employees of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office serving as Speaker of the Assembly and state Senate Majority Leader.
“If the DAs weren’t absolutely on board, it wasn’t going to get passed,” Langford said.
In the end, Turner said the concerns of the community, the people who would bear the brunt of the legislation, weren’t considered. “Weighing the impact of this, we pulled our support from the bill,” she said.
Fumo added Nevada courts are probably going to have to get involved at some point.
But Turner said more can be done locally. The Mass Liberation Project is working on meeting with Wolfson to talk about steps he can take without legislation. “Letting people go on their own recognizance is something he can do,” she said.
Now that the legislature is planning an interim study, the coalition will also push to have people from the mass liberation coalition as part of the commission that will be collecting the data.
If the committee is just comprised of the same individuals who influenced the legislation — district attorneys, bail bond agents, public defenders, law enforcement — nothing will change, reform advocates say.
“A person who has been through the criminal justice process can tell you how it works better than someone on the outside,” Turner said. “We are the experts because we live this policy.”
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