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Opinion

Editorial: California continues to show the nation the absurdity and unfairness of money bail

Arraignment was postponed for Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of a Mexico-based evangelical church
Naason Joaquin Garcia, the La Luz del Mundo church leader facing charges of human trafficking and forcing children to perform sex acts, had his bail set at $25 million. Then it doubled.
(Al Seib / Associated Press)

Bail was set at a stunning $25 million for Naason Joaquin Garcia after he was arrested last month at Los Angeles International Airport on charges of human trafficking and forcing children to perform sex acts. The presumably unattainable amount was sure to keep him behind bars for however long it takes to get him to trial.

Or was it? Joaquin Garcia is leader of La Luz del Mundo, a church with as many as a million enthusiastic followers who consider him the most recent apostle of Jesus Christ. Maybe his devotees could raise that kind of money after all, or at least 8% to 12% of it to pay a bail bond agent, who would pledge the rest. And if they did, and if he was released, wouldn’t Joaquin Garcia just flee to his home and church headquarters in Mexico rather than hang around L.A. to be prosecuted?

So California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra asked to double the amount, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed. Bail is now at a record-setting $50 million. At least for now, Joaquin Garcia isn’t going anywhere.

In about 15 months, California voters are to decide whether to finally scrap money bail in this state altogether.
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For George Tyndall, bail was initially set at $2.1 million, so he wasn’t going anywhere either. Tyndall is the former USC gynecologist accused of sexually assaulting patients at the student health center. On Tuesday a judge reduced the amount to $1.6 million — a still-hefty sum, but one that Tyndall may be able to meet by putting up his condo as collateral.

He may well be guilty, and perhaps Joaquin Garcia is too — but that’s got nothing to do with whether they ought to be in or out of jail before trial.

The whole point of money bail is that accused criminals are supposed to be able to pay it. Presumed innocent until proven guilty, they’re supposed to get out before trial in order to participate fully in their own defense. And then, the theory goes, they won’t run away because they won’t want to lose their money (or their house or their car or whatever other collateral they put up).

In practice, however, setting money bail amounts has become a ruse for keeping defendants locked up, either because judges believe they will flee no matter how much money is at stake — or perhaps because prosecutors want to squeeze a guilty plea out of them in exchange for their freedom.

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But if a judge has sufficient evidence that Joaquin Garcia is truly a high risk to flee, the right response is not to set impossibly high bail. It’s to deny him release on bail at any level.

Likewise, Tyndall shouldn’t be released if there’s enough evidence that he’s a danger to flee or hurt someone. But if there’s little or no such evidence, he should get out without posting any bail at all, no matter how wicked his alleged crimes and no matter how his accusers feel about it.

It would be bad enough if it were just the rich and notorious who were slapped with huge bail amounts. But the even more insidious problem with money bail is that it generally discriminates against the poor. Perhaps Joaquin Garcia and Tyndall will be able to raise all that money. But how about Kristen Gotangco, whose bail was set at $600,000 after she was arrested on an animal cruelty charge for allegedly hoarding 78 cats?

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Why was it so important to keep her in jail before trial? It can’t be the only way to protect the neighborhood felines. Gotangco sounds like a woman in need of serious help, not someone who’s likely to flee the jurisdiction in order to hoard cats in some other country. Any amount of money bail for such a person is excessive.

Decisions about whether to release an accused criminal before trial should be based on the risk that the person will flee or hurt someone while awaiting his or her day in court. They should not be based on the public’s feelings about the crime, and certainly not on the defendant’s wealth or poverty.

The state Supreme Court is to decide later this year whether to ban money bail in all cases in which defendants can’t afford it. In about 15 months, California voters are to decide whether to finally scrap money bail in this state altogether. Until then, we live with an absurd system that calculates justice and public safety by the amount of money the defendant can beg, borrow or otherwise fork over.

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