Not too long ago, moderate bail for minor infractions was the norm because the idea of preventing "the infliction of punishment prior to conviction" (http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment8/annotation01.html) made good common sense. The only reason to detain anyone pretrial was if they posed an imminent threat to someone else or seemed likely to skip their court date. Such were the halcyon days of innocent until proven guilty.
But that was before the rise of the modern bail bond boom, a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry with an army of bondsmen and surety agents charging usurious interest rates to the incarcerated. Taken along with its affiliated franchises in indefinite probation, penal labor, for-profit prisons, and privatized correctional services, the prison industrial complex has achieved such gargantuan proportions that the United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people than any other country in the world.
Unsurprisingly, many inmates are low-income Black- and Brown-skinned Americans. According to the NAACP, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008 even though they make up about one quarter of the U.S. population.
The bail bond industry and its affiliates can be quite profitable for county and municipal treasuries suffering from budget cuts at a time of increasing austerity. As more and more municipalities plan their budgets around anticipated revenues from minor infractions such as traffic tickets and other petty penalties, the cost to the poor rises accordingly. In 2013, the budget for the city of Santa Barbara included revenues of close to three million dollars in fines and forfeitures alone.
As was demonstrated in Ferguson, Missouri, such seemingly trivial fines and penalties can have a disparate impact on the working poor. After acts of police brutality in Ferguson were televised nationally, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the city's systemic abuse of poverty-stricken African Americans. What was revealed only confirmed what many already knew: that the Ferguson police selectively gave traffic tickets to poor Blacks in order to accrue fines and penalties to the profit of the city. The DOJ reported that in December of 2014, over 16,000 Ferguson residents had warrants out for their arrests for merely failing to pay these discriminatory tickets. Civil rights attorneys concluded that Ferguson had become a vast debtors prison for those with little means to pay their police-imposed tickets and who faced prison and steadily accruing interest and fees as a result.
Unfortunately, Santa Barbara County is rapidly becoming like the most oppressive areas of the country. Local police have gained notoriety for engaging in the selective vehicle impoundments of low-income Latino residents. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, from June 2011 through June 2012, the police department issued over 1,000 unlicensed driver citations in what was rumored to be racially motivated ticketing on the Westside. (www.independent.com/news/2012/oct/04/no-license-drive/). As in Ferguson, post-racial America is a long way from a reality here in sunny Santa Barbara.
The fate of pretrial detainees who are incarcerated for failing to pay tickets is no laughing matter. A Hispanic man imprisoned for unpaid parking tickets died from inadequate medical care when he contracted Valley Fever in the San Joaquin county jail. Consigned to the ugly purgatory of county jail simply because he could not afford to post bail, this man paid with his life.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).