Bipartisan effort to reform bail system

Sacramento Bee

California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris, and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul want to reform the country’s cash bail system.
California Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris, and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul want to reform the country’s cash bail system. AP

His face pale and marred by a ghastly scar above his eye, Sen. John McCain returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and sputtered what many Americans have been thinking for years.

“We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues,” the Arizona Republican barked at his colleagues, “because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

It seems there is at least one glimmer of hope, though.

Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrat from California, and Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, are working in a decidedly bipartisan fashion to implement bail reform.

The unlikely duo made a show of introducing their Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act this month and have been making the rounds on TV networks to sell it.

Not that it should need much selling.

In many states, thousands of people sit in county jails every day — not because of a criminal conviction, but because they can’t afford to pay their bail since they tend to be poor or working class and black or Hispanic.

Nationwide, about nine in 10 detained defendants had a money bail amount set, but were unable to meet the financial conditions required to be released. That inability to post money bail often results in innocent individuals pleading guilty to minor offenses just to get out of jail.

“If they’re awaiting trial and they don’t pose a risk, let’s not have the taxpayers foot the bill, especially when a similarly situated person is not in jail because they could write a check,” Harris told McClatchy.

The act is meant to encourage states, like Florida, to reform or replace their bail system.

While people cool their heels behind bars waiting for trial, usually for weeks, but sometimes months or years, defendants often lose their jobs and sometimes their families, putting a outsized burden on the nation’s social safety net.

It’s a travesty that gets repeated day in and day out, all over the country — except in states, such as New Jersey, that have enacted their own reforms. Other states need a nudge, though. Yet other states have tried to largely eliminate the use of cash bail, instead releasing people based on the risk they pose to the public.

Opponents of the effort complain of the cost of establishing the pretrial services agencies that would be responsible for determining whether a defendant should be released before trial.

Harris and Paul want to create a three-year, $10 million grant program that would pay for states to come up with ways to replace money bail.

States would apply to the U.S. Department of Justice and be required to report their progress to make sure their reforms are not discriminatory.

The idea is to encourage, not require, states to replace their bail systems — and do it in a way that works locally.

That’s a method Republicans should be able to back, and a goal that Democrats should love.

Indeed, Harris got rave reviews after a speech on the legislation at the NAACP’s annual convention in Baltimore on Monday.

Reforming the nation’s highly unfair bail system is a smart move politically for Harris and Paul.

The rest of Congress should join the effort.

A version of this editorial was first published in the Sacramento Bee.