San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announces elimination of cash bail

A year ago, in January 2019, when Chesa Boudin was an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, he counsels a client at a pretrial hearing who was being held in jail on bail. A year later, as district attorney, he is abolishing money bail for all but the most dangerous detainees. – Photo: Lea Suzuki, SF Chronicle

San Francisco prosecutors will no longer request payment as a condition for pretrial release

by Paula Lehman-Ewing

San Francisco – Attorneys at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office received a formal policy today ending the practice of prosecutors asking for cash bail as a condition of pretrial detention. Whether someone will have to remain incarcerated pretrial will no longer be based on wealth and poverty but instead on risk.

By replacing money bail with a risk-based system, people who are safe to be released get released quickly with appropriate, non-monetary conditions, and those who pose a serious threat to public safety are detained, regardless of their wealth.

“For years I’ve been fighting to end this discriminatory and unsafe approach to pretrial detention,” District Attorney Chesa Boudin said. “From this point forward, pretrial detention will be based on public safety, not on wealth.”

U.S. taxpayers spend $38 million per day to jail people who are awaiting trial.[1] Upholding the money bail system also comes at a high societal cost: Pretrial detention and the disruption that causes to a person’s life can lead to a 32.2 percent increase in the likelihood of future felony charges and has an immediate impact on an individual’s ability to maintain an income and housing.[2]

Studies conducted by Human Rights Watch have revealed that pretrial release for those who do not present a risk to public safety makes our court systems fairer and does not result in an increase of crime nor an increase in missed court dates.

Pretrial detention and the disruption that causes to a person’s life can lead to a 32.2 percent increase in the likelihood of future felony charges and has an immediate impact on an individual’s ability to maintain an income and housing.

“District Attorney Boudin’s policy is a great step towards a more just system,” said John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “For too long, prosecutors have used money bail and pretrial incarceration as leverage to pressure people to plead guilty regardless of actual guilt. Boudin’s policy favoring pretrial release is a welcome change and will help build the credibility of our courts.”

Money bail has disproportionately impacted our poorest communities as well as communities of color. In San Francisco, African-Americans pay over $120 per capita per year in non-refundable bail fees compared to $10 per capita per year for white individuals. Additionally, since 99 percent of people who post bail in San Francisco use private bail bond companies, there is an instant and dramatic transfer of wealth from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to private industry; roughly $10-$15 million in non-refundable fees are paid annually to bail bond agencies.[3]

Former San Francisco DA George Gascón introduced an algorithmic risk assessment tool in 2016 to move the county away from monetary bail and towards a system based on risk to public safety. In stark contrast to money bail, this tool has helped prosecutors make more equitable decisions concerning pretrial individuals. It has allowed prosecutors and judges to preserve the constitutional protection of presumed innocence, while maintaining public safety through objective data.

“We are excited to see the city of San Francisco end the racially and economically discriminatory practice of money bail,” said Raj Jayadev, cofounder of the community advocacy organization Silicon Valley De-Bug. “It is a scheme that shatters families, communities and lives and the due process we claim is a right afforded to all. If we are to move away from pretrial detention and towards a just and safe community, it starts with ending the indefensible ransom of money bail.”

Today, the office takes this important step by formalizing a policy to eliminate money bail and answers the statewide call by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the California Legislature to end this unfair system.

Paula Lehman-Ewing, communications manager for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, can be reached at paula.lehman-ewing@sfgov.org.

[1]“Pretrial Justice: How Much Does It Cost?” Pretrial Justice Institute (January 2017)

[2]“The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention.” Stanford Law Review (March 2017)

[3]“Do the Math: Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco.” Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector, City and County of San Francisco (June 2017)