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‘Broken’ bail system costs mostly poor SF residents $15M annually in fees

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Bail bonds businesses line the street across from the Hall OF Justice on Bryant Street in San Francisco, Calif. on June 29, 2016. (Joel Angel Juárez/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco sets the highest bails in the nation that punish its poorest residents — not those who pose the greatest public safety risk, a new city report has found.

Between $10 million and $15 million is spent by residents in nonrefundable bail fees annually, most of whom live in San Francisco’s communities of color like the Bayview, Tenderloin and Mission, and many who pay the bails are wives, mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those jailed, according to the report released Wednesday by the tax collector. Many elect to not pay the bail altogether and instead sit in jail until their trial date.

“I have been shocked to learn how much the cash bail system hurts my constituents, particularly women,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission and called Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing on the bail system.

“This system is unfair, that it impacts primarily women, it impacts primarily women of color and that it strips what little wealth that low-income families have,” Ronen said.

Ronen said she plans to introduce a resolution at the July 11 board meeting that would urge San Francisco Superior Court to reduce bail amounts, and to introduce legislation at a subsequent hearing to possibly start requiring licensing for-profit money bail companies — for-profit bail, which originated in San Francisco, is only legal in the U.S. and Philippines. She also plans to examine establishing a revolving loan fund to help people pay bail who cannot afford it.

The hearing came as the “Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco” report was issued Wednesday by the Fines and Fees Task Force, coordinated by the the Financial Justice Project and overseen by tax collector José Cisneros.

The report found there was lack of oversight for money bail services and the “fees are largely paid by residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.”

Anne Stuhldreher, director of Financial Justice in the Office of the Treasurer and a contributor to the report, said that the “money bail system creates a two-tier system of justice, one for people who have money and one who don’t.”

She continued, “If you have money you can purchase your freedom and if you don’t you can end up waiting for your trial behind bars.”

On Aug. 23 last year there were 616 persons in jail that could have been released if they posted bail, according to a Sheriff’s Department point-in-time count of the San Francisco County Jail. The top charges were for robbery and burglary. Forty-six percent were black.

Up to 21,000 persons are booked in San Francisco jails annually. In 2016, 2,652 people posted bail, a total of over $149 million in bonds with the average over $56,000. Nearly all persons who post bail in San Francisco use private bail bond companies, which charge fees up to 10 percent of bail amounts.

The debate over bail comes as The City is striving to reduce its jail population and provide a better pathway to reform those caught up in the criminal justice system. There are multiple ongoing efforts by the Public Defender’s Office, Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office to divert people from ending up in jail.

Roma Guy, head of Taxpayers for Public Safety, helped defeat a new jail proposal in 2015 by calling for a reduction in jail population and increased social services. “It’s an old problem, but a new highlight on this piece of the puzzle,” Guy said of the bail report. “This part of the puzzle is critical.”

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy said that “it’s just outrageous that we have these kinds of disparities existing in San Francisco.”

He added, “We need to get people out of the system. The system itself is just broken and is the source of a tremendous amount of oppression,” he said. defeat a new jail proposal in 2015 by calling for a reduction in jail population and increased social services

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