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5 big numbers tell the story of LA’s cash bail system

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2011 photo, people walk past the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Men's Central Jail facility in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File) Damian Dovarganes/AP

A new report released Monday provides a first-of-its-kind glimpse at L.A.’s bail system – and a sense of what’s at stake in the coming debate over whether it's fair for the criminal justice system to demand bail from low level offenders.

Governor Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye have pledged to reform the system next year, joining efforts already under way by State Senator Robert Hertzberg of the San Fernando Valley and others.

The report, issued by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, tallies LAPD arrests over a five-year period from 2012 through 2016. It looks at how the bail system worked for arrestees – or against them – in the days before their arraignment. Arraignment typically occurs within 48 hours of an arrest – not including weekends.

The numbers get at the heart of a key question in the debate over cash bail: should people who present no threat to the community and are not a flight risk nonetheless be required to pay to get out of jail?

The study includes some interesting numbers. Here are five of them.

$19.4 Billion 

That's the total bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the LAPD for misdemeanors and felonies from 2012 to 2016. It does not reflect bail changes made later by judges. It also does not include people arrested by the sheriff’s department and more than 45 other smaller police agencies in L.A. County. Authors of the study say they plan to issue a report on the bail generated by sheriff’s arrests next year and predict it will be at least as much.

$194 Million

That’s the non-refundable total paid to bail agents by about 60,000 of the arrestees to get themselves out of jail. Agents typically charge eight to ten percent of the total bail and cover the rest with a bond backed by major insurance companies.* People never get this money back – even if they show up to every court date, even if the prosecutor drops charges, even if they’re found not-guilty.

“It is a permanent re-allocation of your resources away from your family, yourself and your community,” said UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle-Hernandez, one of the authors of the study.

Bond agents argue they provide an important service, helping people to get out of jail who otherwise could not afford to do so. They’ve lobbied legislators in Sacramento to keep the current system in place, arguing the real problem is higher and higher bail amounts set by presiding judges in California’s 58 counties.  The showdown in California mirrors debates across the country. This Houston Chronicle headline earlier this year typifies how battle lines are drawn:

Lawmakers, judges square off against bail bondsman in push to end cash bail for nonviolent offenders

$17.6 Million

In California, an estimated 97 percent of people who make bail do so by paying a bail agent. But a small number pay the full bail in cash to the court. That’s what this number represents. Unlike bail agents, courts return this money after defendants make all required court appearances – even if they are found guilty.

$16.9 Million

The study found low income areas with high unemployment rates were hit hardest by the cash bail system. It found people in four South L.A. zip codes paid nearly $17 million in non-refundable fees to bond agents over the five-year period.

Critics say this is needlessly sapping poor communities of much needed resources because most of the people arrested are not a threat or flight risk. One proposal under consideration in the state legislature would allow counties to develop a “risk-assessment tool” to evaluate two things: what threat a defendant might pose if released and how likely they would be to return to court. 

It should be noted communities outside of South L.A. are impacted by the system as well. For example, residents of Arleta paid $3,106,637 in non-refundable fees to bail agents over the five-year period, the study found.

$40.7 Million

As with almost everything having to do with the criminal justice system in the United States, African Americans are disproportionately affected by the bail system. In the city of Los Angeles, over the five-year period studied by UCLA, black people paid $40.7 million in non-refundable fees to bond agents. That’s 21 percent of the total – an overrepresentation in terms of the percent of the population (8 percent), which is also seen in the number of African Americans shot by police and the number incarcerated in state prisons.

Latinos paid $92.1 million and whites paid $37.9 million. Numbers were not available for Asian Americans, according to the authors.