Sens. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, are working together to address an important national problem: monetary bail that can keep defendants in jail because they’re too poor to pay.
The senators have jointly introduced, and are jointly promoting, a bill that would give grants to states to reform their bail systems.
“Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life,” the pair said in a New York Times op-ed. “As criminal justice groups work to change sentencing and mandatory minimum laws, we must also reform a bail system that is discriminatory and wasteful.”
The bill would require grant recipients to try to move away from money-bail systems to “individualized, pretrial assessments” that estimate the likelihood that a defendant will flee or commit crimes while released. And these assessments would use “objective, research-based and locally validated” tools.
In deciding whether to hold or release a defendant pending trial, a court considers the freedom of a person who has not been proved to be anything other than innocent. Taking that freedom away takes a lot to justify. It may sometimes be necessary to ensure that the defendant does not flee before justice can be done, but innocent people deserve an individualized risk assessment if they are to be kept in jail for such a reason.
And such assessments are certainly to be preferred to monetary bail, and especially to monetary bail set without regard to ability to pay. It is unequal justice to hold people in jail because they are poor when they would get out if they were better off. Monetary bail can have exactly that result.
Before becoming a senator this year, Harris served as the attorney general of California and the district attorney of San Francisco. She has become known for her tough questioning in Senate hearings, a trait that serves the nation well — especially from someone who has her command of the law. While Paul’s pre-Senate career was largely spent as an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., he has demonstrated commitment to his libertarian ideals, much to the annoyance of some colleagues — but at least people can see where he stands. In this hyperpartisan time, it is heartening to see senators from the two major parties working together on a matter of justice.