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Why these California Jews are fighting for bail reform

No other legislation has united Jewish groups in California this year more than a bill that works to rid the state of its cash bail system. 

Senate Bill 10, which would effectively obliterate the commercial bail industry, has become the top cause for a coalition of Jewish social justice advocates and synagogues that have spent recent months intensely lobbying politicians and phone banking their constituents.

“It’s resonating with our community and people are showing up and want to do something about it," said Maya Paley, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Leaders of the effort say the bail system punishes the poor and people of color. The fight to topple it, they say, is fueled by their faith, history and a desire to take action against an increasingly polarized political landscape under President Trump. 

Memories of the Holocaust

Paley has helped organize two phone banking events at the NCJW building in Fairfax Village ahead of the Legislature's return this week from its summer recess. Staci Steinberger, a museum curator and member of the progressive Jewish organization IKAR, has worked both of the phone banks. 

At the last one in July, she made call after call to constituents of Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), running up against wrong numbers, voicemails and hang-ups. But she was non-plussed. As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, she said she had been raised to fight for social justice issues. 

"People had stepped up and saved (my grandmother's) life and the expectation would be that, if there are communities that are under persecution, that we should be people who would step up," Steinberger said. 

Brad Kaiserman was another phone-banking volunteer. A criminal defense attorney, Kaiserman is no longer practicing Judaism — he's more "spiritually aligned" with Buddhism — but he says bail reform for him is a moral issue that he said unsurprisingly has touched a nerve in the Jewish community.

"These issues speak particularly to Jewish people because the Holocaust is forever in our minds and hearts," Kaiserman said. "We know what happens when the government starts locking people up and starts discriminating against people."

Brad Kaiserman, a criminal defense attorney in favor of bail reform, volunteers at a phone bank for Senate Bill 10.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Brad Kaiserman, a criminal defense attorney in favor of bail reform, volunteers at a phone bank for Senate Bill 10.

How bail reform became top priority

Climate change, immigration and housing are some of the top issues of concern identified by Jewish social justice organizations such as Bend the Arc in California. But the group's Anjuli Kronheim Katz said she and fellow members zeroed in on S.B. 10 after consulting allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and determining that its passage would make the biggest impact on another major priority: reducing mass incarceration. 

Katz said Jewish organizations started to wade into the issue in 2014 with Proposition 47, which reclassified six drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors in an attempt to reduce the prison population.

"We've been deeply involved since, and every year it seems to be more and more Jewish organizations are waking up and getting more involved in this cause of criminal justice reform," Katz said.

Under S.B. 10, a defendant could be released without bail if a judge, using a risk assessment from a pre-trial agency, deems it safe for the public. 

Right now, the options for a low-income defendant are to have a bail agent put up a bond for a non-refundable fee — roughly 10 percent of the bail amount — or sit in jail for days or weeks until the court date.

Supporters of S.B. 10 say the current system allows for excessive bail that keeps low-income people of color from working and taking care of their children. 

Law enforcement groups and the bail industry say dismantling the bail system would create chaos in the courts and lead to new, costly bureaucracy. They say many small bail businesses would be hurt by the measure.

The United States is one of two countries in the world with a cash bail system — Philippines is the other — but it's coming under intense scrutiny, not only in California but other states and cities.  It's also leading to activism by other religious groups such as Muslims, and interfaith organizations.

Different Jewish organizations have banded together to hold phone banks for Senate Bill 10. From l. to r.: Anjuli Kronheim Katz of Bend the Arc; Maya Paley of the National Council of Jewish Women and Brooke Wirtschafter of IKAR, a Jewish congregation.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Different Jewish organizations have banded together to hold phone banks for Senate Bill 10. From l. to r.: Anjuli Kronheim Katz of Bend the Arc; Maya Paley of the National Council of Jewish Women and Brooke Wirtschafter of IKAR, a Jewish congregation.

Re-awakening Jewish activism

Jews make up one of the most politically liberal groups in the country, with about 70 percent identifying or leaning Democratic. They’ve been prominent in fights for racial equality and women’s rights. But Paley said the level of Jewish activism has wavered over the years.

"As our community gained more wealth and more privilege, a lot of that allyship and activism kind of dissolved," Paley said. 

But she’s seen a spike in political engagement since President Trump was elected. Charlottesville was another call to action, when white supremacists spouted anti-Semitic lines.

"So many of us Jews are pretty comfortable here in the United States," said Lee Winkelman of the Religious Action Center. "And to realize that our status is provisional and can be attacked anytime is a scary moment."

The Religious Action Center is the social justice arm of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the country. Winkelman said the last few years has seen the number of California synagogues working with the center jump from 20 to 45. And they are from all over the state, not just Los Angeles and Berkeley, Winkelman said, but also San Diego, Orange County and the Inland Empire.

"Being in California there is even more importance to act because California is a counterweight to some of the most regressive national trends," Winkelman said. "We're an alternative model of what politics can be. What a state or a country can be."

Some 150 Jewish clergy and laity, among them young people, converged on the statehouse Tuesday to lobby politicians on bail reform. Sadie Weil, 15, is headed to Sacramento with her synagogue Temple Israel of Hollywood. She said since the election of President Trump, she and her fellow Jewish teens have more intensely felt a responsibility to fight for social justice and tolerance.

"I live in the Los Angeles bubble, but getting out into the world can be a little alarming and kind of scary," Weil said.

The end of an industry?

This growing involvement of religious groups is viewed with frustration by some in the bail industry such as Jason Meyerson, a bail agent in Tustin and board member of the California Bail Agents Association.  

“If I didn't know this industry, I may say ‘Yeah, it doesn't make sense: How poor people are stuck in jail and rich people go free?" Meyerson said. "It's just not how it works.”

Meyerson said the system works well now because when a defendant fails to appear for trial, a bail agent will go find that person rather than someone in law enforcement.

Under S.B. 10, he predicts, "failure-to-appear rates are guaranteed to go up." 

Meyerson, who was born Jewish but is not practicing, said S.B. 10 could benefit a small minority of low-income defendants, but would end up destroying an entire industry, one dominated by small businesses and many run by women and minorities.

"This extreme bail measure is essentially throwing the baby out with the bath water," Meyerson said. 

But the demise of an industry is not on Staci Steinberger’s mind when she works the phones. As the night winds down, Steinberger is close to convincing a woman named Esther to call her legislator, Mike Gipson. Esther tells Steinberger to wait — she’s going to grab a pen.

Steinberger did a fist-pump. "She had never heard of the issue, but when I explained it, she thought it made a lot of sense," she said.

It remains to be seen how Gipson will vote. A spokeswoman said he is still undecided.

Josie Huang covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.