This is the most important article on the criminal justice system I’ve ever read. Why? Because it is the only article in the popular media I’ve ever come across that looks at how misdemeanors are handled. Although it was published back in April, it will stay relevant until there are fundamental reforms to the system. The piece, Why Misdemeanors Aren’t So Minor, by Professor Alexandra Natapoff, exposes the destructive mishandling of misdemeanor cases that damage the lives of rich and poor—but mostly the working poor.
The system of bail on misdemeanors—for crimes like domestic violence, driving under the influence (DUI), drug crimes and petty theft—can keep defendants locked up until their trial. “Bail” is an amount of money a person must pay to be released from jail after arrest. Misdemeanor bail can range from $5000 to $25,000. Few people can deposit that much money with the sheriff. So, they must turn to a bail bond company for help. In exchange for a non-refundable fee of 10% of the bail amount, the bond company will promise the court to pay the full bail amount if the arrestee fails to show up for court. If you can’t afford the 10% bond premium, you sit in jail until your trial. On a misdemeanor in California, the right to a speedy trial means your trial must begin 45 days from your arraignment. Of course, judges have the power to drop the bail and release you “on your own recognizance,” but they often leave the bail set by the sheriff in place. If you can’t bail out, you’re left with a horrible choice: plead guilty to something you didn’t do (and be immediately released on probation), or sit in jail for six weeks until your trial. As you can imagine, people with jobs, rent to pay, child support obligations, etc., often make that deal with the devil. The number of false convictions under these circumstances is staggering. But what is a struggling working person to do? It’s either tell the truth and sit in jail until trial while your life collapses, or plead guilty to something you did not do. The solution will only come when you—that means you reading this now—express your concerns to District Attorneys and judges. Both offices stand for election. Hold them accountable.