WASHINGTON — The last thing Ato Walker expected when he went out for a pre-birthday drive in 2014 was to have a traffic stop escalate into a physical encounter with police, then have his bail set at more than $165,000.
After his bail was reduced to $85,000, his mother used her retirement savings to pay a bail bondsman the nonrefundable, mandatory 10 percent to free him.
His case was eventually thrown out, but the memory lingers.
“There are too many people that are up-charged, like I was,” Walker said.
Now two senators from opposing parties — Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — are working on a bill to overhaul the nation’s bail system in an attempt to prevent what happened to Walker from happening to others. The bill, titled the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, aims to address what the senators see as flaws in the system by providing grants to states and Indian tribes to change or replace it.
“In our country, whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not — and that’s wrong,” Harris said in a news release. “We must come together to reform a bail system that is discriminatory, wasteful and fails to keep our communities safe.”
In a New York Times op-ed in July, the two senators said there are “450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail.”
Bail is aimed at making sure defendants, depending on the severity of the charges they face and their flight risk, return to court. Those with limited means, however, often find themselves unable to post bail, which can lead to job loss and child custody issues, or forced to borrow from bail bondsmen.
The current bail system is “one of the greatest injustices in a system that already has major injustices” said Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s deputy national political director and the director of its Campaign for Smart Justice, which works to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
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