Advocates File Lawsuit Challenging Los Angeles County’s Bail Schedule Policy

On November 14, 2022, Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai, in partnership with Civil Rights Corps, Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project, Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes, LLP, and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against the County and City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and the Chief of the LAPD, challenging the defendants’ policy of jailing arrested individuals who are unable to pay the monetary amounts set by the County’s uniform “bail schedules.”

The lawsuit has been covered by The Guardian.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Phillip Urquidi, Terilyn Goldson, Daniel Martinez, Arthur Lopez, Susana Perez, and Gerardo Campos, all of whom are in jail because they and their families could not afford to pay the arbitrary amounts dictated by the bail schedule. They are joined as plaintiffs by an interfaith coalition of CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice); its Executive Director Reverend Jennifer Gutierrez; Reverend Gary Bernard Williams, Pastor Saint Mark UMC and Board Member of CLUE; and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature, American Jewish University. These clergy plaintiffs are challenging the unconstitutional use of their taxes to fund the bail schedule.

Established by a committee of LA County Superior Court judges behind closed doors and applied by arresting agencies, the bail schedules set a fixed dollar amount each arrested individual must pay to purchase their freedom. These dollar amounts are based on the charges specified by the arresting officer–not an attorney or judge. The median secured money bail amount in California is $50,000, compared to $10,000 nationwide.

Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the country. And the bail schedule deprives thousands of presumptively innocent people of their liberty because they can’t afford to pay the amounts on the bail schedule, forcing them to languish in police lockups and county jail facilities, often under inhumane conditions, before they are given a lawyer or a judge or lawyer has even seen the case. People who are jailed pretrial risk losing their housing, earnings, and jobs, and their families are also severely impacted, traumatizing children and other dependents. Additionally, people jailed pretrial have significantly worse case outcomes than people who are not. They face greater pressure to plead guilty, are given longer sentences, and, because of jail’s destabilizing effects, are more likely to be re-arrested than those who are released immediately.

L.A. County’s cash-based jailing policy not only hurts those who are jailed—it harms those who manage to pay. And since people of color make up a disproportionate number of people arrested and detained, the secured bail system causes a massive appropriation of wealth from communities of color into the hands of the for-profit bail industry.

“Nearly 200 years after the abolition of debtors’ prisons, the LAPD and LASD continue to jail huge numbers of Angelenos simply because they are poor,” said Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai attorney Brian Olney. “This outrageous and barbaric practice must end immediately.”

“Our clients have been in jail for five days – and counting – away from their jobs, their loved ones, and the medications they need. They have been jailed in unsanitary conditions and have not felt the sun on their skin for close to a week. All this, for no reason other than their inability to pay,” said Civil Rights Corps attorney Salil Dudani. “Our clients can’t afford to pay for housing, let alone the thousands of dollars police demand for their freedom. But they are not too dangerous to release: they would be set free right away if they could pay. They are jailed only because they do not have money. Through this case, they have decided to stand up to LA’s cruel and senseless system of cash-based jailing.”

Proponents of the cash bail system argue it ensures people show up to court and keeps communities safe. But study after study shows that secured bail does nothing to increase court appearances. And jailing people who can’t pay harms communities and makes everyone less safe.

“Jailing people simply because their families can’t afford to pay cash bail destabilizes their lives and subjects them to inhumane conditions for no good reason,” said Debtors’ Prison Project Director Leslie Bailey. “Under LA County’s system, a person arrested for a less serious crime is locked up solely because she can’t pay, while another person arrested for a more serious crime is set free because he can afford bail. This is the definition of wealth discrimination, and it has no place in our society or our legal system.”

“The bail system in Los Angeles County treats people differently based on how much money they have in their bank account,” said Brad Brian, Chairman of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP. “If two people are arrested for the same alleged crime, a person who has money can pay to immediately go free while someone without the same resources is confined in a jail cell for days before they get a lawyer or see a judge. The result is that on any given day, instead of going to work or being with their families, hundreds of people remain in jail solely because of poverty. This needless deprivation of liberty also makes us all less safe because it costs people jobs and housing and destabilizes their lives. Our case seeks to end this violation of constitutional rights.”

“LA’s cash bail system must end,” said Plaintiff Reverend Jennifer Gutierrez. “It unfairly discriminates against poor Angelenos, forcing them into debt whether or not they are convicted of a crime. Even a few days in jail can cost someone their job, which has lasting impacts on their family, including their children. We should not be forcing poor people into debt to purchase their freedom.”

“Depriving someone who is neither a danger to themselves or others, nor has been convicted of a crime, of their freedom is a basic violation of human rights,” said Plaintiff Rabbi Aryeh Cohen. “Setting a monetary threshold for whether or not a person can enjoy their rights adds discrimination to the original human rights violation. Ultimately, this is an act of caging people because they are poor. This violates the basic demands of what it means to be a just and caring society.”

“The cash bail bond system must end now,” said Plaintiff Reverend Gary Bernard Williams. “It only works for those who can afford to pay and they get to go home. It was designed to keep poor people accused of crimes in jail. Those jailed for lack of money are more likely to be people of color. Poor people awaiting trial sometimes for months run the risk of losing their jobs, their housing, and it places a strain on the family. If this system can’t be reformed then it’s time to end it.”

Because people who can afford to pay money bail are set free, Los Angeles County’s jails are filled with individuals who struggle to pay for the basic necessities of life. Like the other named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, plaintiff Terilyn Goldson is homeless and barely has enough money to meet her own needs.

“I believe it is wrong for them to keep people in jail simply because they don’t have enough money,” Ms. Goldson testified in her declaration. “What I’m going through should not happen to anyone.”

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