Federal lawsuit filed to overturn city’s ‘unequal’ bail system

Riana Buffin, 19, of Oakland, couldn't afford to pay the $30,000 bail after she was arrested. Now she's been named in a federal lawsuit arguing bail is unfair to the poor. (Courtesy/Equal Justice Under Law)

San Francisco is being sued for what a federal class-action lawsuit argues is an unjust bail system that penalizes the poor with unpayable amounts for small offenses, yet allows wealthy defendants charged with serious crimes back on the streets because they can afford to pay.

The City’s bail system is unconstitutional because it violates the principle of equal protection under the law, the lawsuit alleges. Six similar lawsuits have forced local jurisdictions across the country to amend their bail schedules so the poor are not negatively impacted.

“In San Francisco, arrestees face two different outcomes depending on their wealth status,” the lawsuit claims. “Wealthy arrestees purchase their freedom by paying an arbitrary amount set by the bail schedule. Poor arrestees must languish behind bars until the resolution of their case, simply because they cannot afford to pay a pre-determined sum of money. The sole criterion determining whether a pretrial arrestee walks free or sits in jail is the amount of money she has.”

The federal suit, filed Thursday by Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C.­-based civil rights nonprofit, names two women arrested this week who served time in San Francisco County Jail because they could not afford bail. Both plaintiffs, Riana Buffin, 19, and Crystal Patterson, 29, have since been released from jail, but one still owes $15,000 to a bail bond company.

The City has yet to be served, and the City Attorney’s office says it is premature to comment on the lawsuit.

But the San Francisco Superior Court’s spokesperson did weigh in on the issue.

“By state law, the judges in each county are required to approve an annual bail schedule,” says a statement from the court. “The purpose of bail is two­fold — to protect the public’s safety and to ensure that the defendant returns to court. Judges may use their discretion in setting bail — higher or lower than the amounts listed on the bail schedule, which serves as a guide.”

Last June, judges decided to raise many bail amounts. Still, others have vocally supported the lawsuit.

“Determinations of who should stay in-custody and who should be released pending the resolution of their case needs to be based on the risk the individual poses to the community and the likelihood that they will appear for their next court date, not whether they are rich or poor.” District Attorney George Gascon said. “You can be wealthy and pose a serious risk to the community, and those with resources are arguably more of a flight risk than those without. Meanwhile, a poor defendant who poses no risk to the community and who is unlikely to flee may have no option but to remain in-custody until their case is resolved because they can’t make bail.

“This is a social justice issue, and that’s why I have been working for nearly three years to develop a risk-assessment tool that the courts will be able to utilize that will enable them to make determinations of who should and who should not remain in-custody, irrespective of their ability to pay.”

Additionally, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi wrote a declaration in support of the suit. More importantly, there might have been no suit without the aid of the Public Defender’s Office, according to Phil Telfeyan, one of the attorneys who filed the case.

Lawyers from the Equal Justice Under Law came to San Francisco to investigate the bail system after being contacted by Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin. Once here, the legal team was aided by the Public Defender’sOffice.

“They sort of went above and beyond,” Telfeyan said. “Without the Public Defender’s support, we would not be in San Francisco.”

The lawsuit is trying to put an end to what Telfeyan calls a bifurcated justice system. “One for the rich, where they are able to purchase their freedom, and one for the poor, who have to sit in jail and await trial.”

According to the suit, The City won’t release defendants from custody unless they “pay a generic and arbitrary ‘bond’ amount.” Bail is set in what is known as “bail schedule” and done so under state guidelines. The amount of bail is determined by the offense, and no consideration is made when it comes to individual circumstance, the lawsuit noted.

Buffin, an Oakland resident, lives with her mother and three younger brothers. She was arrested for grand theft of personal property and conspiracy and had her bail set at $30,000. After her arrest and booking, the District Attorney did not pursue prosecution.

Patterson, of San Francisco, lives with and is the primary caregiver of her grandmother. She was arrested and charged with assault with force causing great bodily injury and had a bail of $150,000. Although her case was also not pursued, she is still in debt for the $15,000 fee to have a bail bond company put up the bond.

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