July 24, 2017

Sen Harris: Bail Reform is a Matter of “Economic Justice”

BALTIMORE - Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris delivered remarks at the annual Federal Policy and Legislative Workshop at the NAACP’s 108th National Convention, an event to highlight public policy issues facing the African-American community. Harris discussed the practice of money bail, which requires individuals awaiting trial to remain in jail unless they pay for their release. Last week, Harris joined Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017, a bipartisan bail reform bill which encourages states to reform or replace the practice of money bail.

“In a system that is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail gets out for the same offense, but the person who can’t pay to get out of jail sits in jail with all these other residual consequences?”, Harris said. “That is wrong. Let’s be clear about something else. On this issue then, it is not only about criminal justice reform. This is also a matter of economic justice. Because the person who can pay gets out.”

Harris’ full remarks, as delivered:

HARRIS: So there is so much to discuss but I just want to first thank everybody here for your long-standing leadership. Senator Duckworth said it well: there are folks in this room who have been marching and shouting for a very long time. And as a proud member of the NAACP, I want to thank everyone here for doing work that has long needed to be done for so many people who aren’t in the room right now. Folks in this room, the leaders like my leader from California, Alice Huffman, have been doing this work on behalf of so many people that we may never meet, people who may never know our names. But because of the work that happens in rooms like this, people’s lives are forever changed. So I’m here to thank everyone for all that is being done and in particular now, at this moment. 

I couldn’t agree more with all that has already been said. I think we are at an inflection point in the history of our country. I think of this as a moment in time that is similar to the moment in time when my parents met when they were active in the Civil Rights movement, marching and shouting for justice in Oakland, California in the 1960s. I think of this as a moment in time when we, as a nation, are being required to look in a mirror and perhaps, when we look in that with furrowed brow, we are asking a question: Who are we? Who are we?

And here’s what I believe the answer is. Imperfect though we may be, I believe we are a great country. And part of what makes us great, imperfect though we may be, is we are a country that was founded on certain ideals, certain principles. Those principles that are underlying the Constitution of the United States. Those principles that are behind the writing of the Thirteenth, the Fourteenth, and the Fifteenth Amendment. Those principles that say that we should fight for a free and independent press. That we should fight for the right to associate freely. That we should fight for justice, for civil rights, for liberty for everyone. This is a moment in time that is requiring us to fight for our principles. And so when we then look at this fight, let’s break it down in terms of some specific issues where, with our limited resources, we can put our collective will and power – collective will and power – into addressing something and getting something done. 

And so I appreciate that we are having this legislative conference as a way to then focus on specific issues. And so I’m going to talk about one in particular, and it’s the issue of money bail. Ok, so here’s the deal. Now, you all know I’m a former prosecutor. I was the first Black woman elected to be a District Attorney in the State of California when I ran the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. I was the first Black woman in the history of the country to be an Attorney General and therefore the top cop in the biggest State of California. And I’m now a member of – [applause] thank you – the United States Senate as the second Black woman only in the history of the United States Senate to be elected to that position. 

And so – [applause] and so – looking at the issues from that experience and background has led to me to focus, among many issues, on the issue of money bail and here’s why. So you all know how the system works, right? The system works like this. I’m going to give an example, which I’ll use throughout this brief talk. Let’s use an example of a woman who is picked up for shop lifting something of great value from a department store. She gets arrested. She goes to jail. Then she goes to court the next day and a judge looks at a bail schedule and says that, “Pending trial, if you pay…” – because the schedule says, let’s say $20,000 because that’s the average bail for a low level offense in this country – “…if you pay $20,000 you can get out of jail.” Now, who of us has $20,000 just sitting around at home?

AUDIENCE: Donald Trump. 

HARRIS: Right, and isn’t that ironic? So then, her family is sitting in the court room realizing that we don’t, between us, have $20,000 sitting at home. They go to those offices that are across the street from every court house in this country called bail bondsmen and the family goes over there and says, “Well, our mother, our sister, our aunt, our niece just got arrested and the bail is $20,000.” The bail bondsman says, “I’ll put that up for you. But in return you’ve got to give me 10%, which is $2,000.” Now, who of us has $2,000 of cash sitting around? So one of a few things happens, right. The family will borrow, beg to get that money. Maybe they will sell some things at the local pawn shop to get that money. Or they can’t come up with the money. Which means, what happens? And by the way, when that bail bondsman takes that $2,000 from you, you don’t get it back, let’s be clear about that. So then what happens if the family can’t come up with the money? She sits in jail. Now, you know, there are backlogs in the criminal courthouses in this country. So she could sit in jail for weeks, months, possibly years. So what’s happening while she is sitting in that jail? Well, she is a single parent with young children. Those young children are at home, unsupervised. What’s the risk there? At the very least, that the child will not be and the children won’t be provided for but also that child protective services might come and take those children away. What’s the risk while she’s sitting in that jail? Well she’s got a job, she’s not showing up for work which means she might get fired. All because she can’t come up with the money to get out of jail.

Now let’s be clear about something. In a system that is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay to get out of jail gets out for the same offense, but the person who can’t pay to get out of jail sits in jail with all of these other residual consequences. That is wrong. That is wrong. Let’s be clear about something else. On this issue then, it is not only about criminal justice reform, and criminal justice reform meaning let’s have justice in that system. This is also a matter of economic justice because the person who can pay gets out. Now, again, as a career prosecutor, let me tell you something. Most of the members of transnational criminal organizations that I’ve dealt with have a lot of money. So they can put up a check. That doesn’t make sense in terms of public safety.

So here’s what I’m proposing. I have got a bill that we just dropped last week with Rand Paul from Kentucky where we are proposing that we change the money bail system in this country. And one of the points that is made, I think – you know, after we did, and then he and I wrote an op-ed that was actually published in the New York Times last week – and after we did, you know, I texted him on Friday because the op-ed came out on Thursday. And I said: “How’s it going? I’m getting good feedback.” And he texted me back, he said, “Appalachia loves this.” 

Because here’s the other piece of what’s going on in this country. Right now, part of the challenge is there are those who are trying to divide us. People come up to me and they say, you know, “Kamala, what are we going to do about a divided America?” And I say, you know what, I challenge that premise. I don’t believe we are divided. I believe we all have much more in common than what separates us. I believe that whether we are talking about an African-American mother, if we are talking about a Latino student, if we are talking about that truck driver who lives in Lansing, Michigan, I know when we all wake up at three o’clock in the morning with that thing that is bothering us, that we wake up in a cold sweat, it is never through the lens of whether we’re a Democrat of a Republican or some demographic that some pollster put us in. When we wake up at three o’clock in the morning it always has to do with just a very few things: my personal health, the health of my children, my family. Can I get a job? Can I keep a job? Can I pay the bills by the end of the month?  Can I retire with dignity? We all have so much more in common than what separates us. And on the issue of economic justice, this issue of cash money bail, money bail is an issue that impacts urban America as much as it does Appalachia. So let’s speak truth to power about what we need to do to reform this system.

And the solution is this. Let’s transfer from a money bail system to a system based on risk assessment. So instead of deciding whether someone gets released pretrial based on whether they could come up with the money, let’s make a decision based on are they a risk to their community. Because then we would understand that that mother is not a risk to the community. Let’s do it in an assessment that says let’s look, for example, at someone’s record of criminal convictions and do they have convictions for serious and violent crime. Let’s understand also because, eyes wide open, that the system of risk assessment should not just be based on prior arrest. Why is that? Well because African-American and Latino men have a disproportionately high rate of being arrested even if they are not charged. So let’s have a smart system and do the thing that we know we all want to accomplish. 

And I’m going to close with this. I think on criminal justice policy for so long we have been offered a false choice which suggests you’re either soft on crime or tough on crime instead of asking are we smart on crime. We need to be smarter. And the bottom line, my fellow members of the NAACP, is this. You know, I think there are two definitions of what it means to be a patriot. One is the definition that suggests you defend your country, whatever it does. And the other is you fight for the ideals of your country. This is about fighting for the ideals of our country and in that way we walk out of here proud as patriots who are fighting for the best of who we can be as a country. I thank you very much.