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Levin writes: "Joseph Warren sees no sunlight and never gets fresh air. The 60-year-old San Francisco man, locked up for more than a month, said he has become suicidal, rarely eats the jail food and tries to sleep as much as possible when he's not crying in his small cell. As a gay man, he is afraid he will be assaulted in the shower."

Joseph Warren is awaiting trial on welfare fraud charges. (photo: Sam Levin/Guardian UK)
Joseph Warren is awaiting trial on welfare fraud charges. (photo: Sam Levin/Guardian UK)

ALSO SEE: Crime Is Down but Jail Populations Are Up.
Who's Taking Up All That Space, Then?

Wealthy Murder Suspect Freed on Bail as Man Accused of Welfare Fraud Stuck in Jail

By Sam Levin, Guardian UK

25 April 17


California woman whose friends raised $35m for her is on house arrest as a man who can’t afford $75,000 bail has two options: plead guilty or stay behind bars

oseph Warren sees no sunlight and never gets fresh air. The 60-year-old San Francisco man, locked up for more than a month, said he has become suicidal, rarely eats the jail food and tries to sleep as much as possible when he’s not crying in his small cell. As a gay man, he is afraid he will be assaulted in the shower.

Warren is awaiting trial on welfare fraud charges. Charged with stealing roughly $5,000 from the government – an accusation he denies – a judge recently set his bail at $75,000, which he can’t afford. His only options are to plead guilty or stay incarcerated.

In the same region, another criminal defendant is preparing for trial in a very different setting. Tiffany Li, a wealthy real estate heir who is accused of conspiring to murder the father of her children, is able to remain under house arrest after posting $4m in cash and pledging $62m in property for her bail. She has a multimillion-dollar mansion 10 miles south of Warren’s jail.

The parallel cases moving through the San Francisco Bay Area’s courts have shone a harsh light on a system that critics say is fundamentally flawed and unconstitutional, where wealth can buy freedom even for those accused of the most serious offenses while others facing minor charges are jailed indefinitely simply for being poor.

“It hurts. I don’t have the money,” Warren said, dressed in a bright orange uniform on a recent morning while seated inside a cramped jail visiting room in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Guards stood watch nearby.

“I feel like I’m an animal here in a cage – less than an animal,” he said.

While Warren waits in jail, lawmakers and activists in California are pushing to abolish key elements of the state’s bail system so that people accused of crimes would no longer be jailed simply because they are unable to pay the fees. Supporters hope the reforms spread across the US – which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world – and correct one of the cruelest aspects of the American criminal justice system.

The concept of bail was originally designed to ensure that defendants return for their court dates by requiring them to post funds upfront. But over time, bail effectively created a two-tiered system where the rich are immediately released while poor defendants are forced to languish behind bars, sometimes destroying their lives and leading to coerced guilty pleas.

On any given day in California – which has one of the largest prison systems in the country and has long struggled with overcrowding – roughly 46,000 people are in local jails waiting for trial or sentencing because they can’t pay bail.

That means people who are innocent or accused of minor offenses are trapped. From 2011 to 2015, one in three people jailed for felony accusations in California were never found guilty, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. In a two-year period across six counties, the government spent $37.5m jailing people who ultimately faced no charges or had cases dropped.

“When you’re in jail because you can’t pay bail, innocent people are more likely to plead to crimes they didn’t commit, because they need to get out,” said Rob Bonta, a California assemblyman sponsoring legislation to overhaul the bail system.

Even a short stint in jail can lead people to lose their housing, their jobs and their children.

Warren said his life had unraveled since he was detained in March. His fraud case stems from an honest misunderstanding, according to his attorney Elizabeth Camacho, a public defender.

The San Francisco native works as an in-home care provider whose salary is subsidized by the government. When an elderly client of his died in December 2013, Warren immediately alerted police, but continued to assist in cleaning the apartment, planning funeral arrangements and managing the estate, Camacho said.

He collected checks for several months while doing the work, the attorney said, but San Francisco prosecutors later alleged that Warren had stolen the $4,862 he received. The case dragged on, and Warren missed a court date last year due to his mother’s death, according to Camacho. As a result, he was arrested in March of this year and told he could only leave jail if he paid 10% of the bail a judge set – $7,500, nearly twice what the government claims he owes.

When Camacho arrived to meet Warren on a recent visit with the Guardian, he immediately delivered bad news: he learned from a friend that he has now lost his apartment of six years and all his possessions inside. That includes many items of sentimental value such as his late mother’s jewelry and family photo albums he can never replace.

“Everything is gone,” he said with a sigh, explaining that if his mother were still alive, she might help him post bail, but that he now has nowhere to turn.

Warren said he was losing work, too, and that regular clients who depend on him for care may be without help. He said he had been unable to reach his partner since he was taken into custody. The partner suffers from drug addiction, and he feared he could be suffering from a relapse.

Warren could only be released if he pleaded to a felony conviction and agreed to six months in jail, according to Camacho, who is preparing to take the case to trial next month. “He’s desperate to get out.”

Defendants too poor to pay bail face huge disadvantages throughout the process. Not only are they pressured to plead guilty, but incarceration can make it much harder to prepare for trial.

Research also suggests that black defendants like Warren are affected by racial biases at every step. African Americans are disproportionately stopped and arrested at higher rates, are more likely to face monetary bail and higher bail fees than their white counterparts and they subsequently face greater convictions and harsher sentences.

Low-income defendants who do manage to pay bail can also face severe long-term consequences since they are forced to sacrifice basic necessities and incur ongoing debts. Even when charges are dropped, defendants can still be on the hook for their debts with bail bondsmen, the private companies that collect non-refundable fees to post the initial bail that allows people to be released.

“You really can’t understate the downstream peril and hardships that the criminal justice system imposes on people, sometimes for the rest of their lives,” said Tom Hoffman, a former California police chief and prison official who supports bail reform efforts.

Ato Walker, a San Jose man, said his mother had to pay $8,500 out of her retirement money to bail him out of jail when he was accused of resisting arrest, a charge that was later dropped.

“It made me sick to my stomach to sit there and see my mom come up with that money we know we are never going to get back,” he said, noting that he felt targeted for being black when prosecutors argued he was a threat to society. “That was very humiliating. It was very racist in my opinion.”

Reform activists argue that people accused of crimes should by default be cited and released, and that those facing serious felonies should be considered for pre-trial detention on an individual basis based on the danger they pose.

“Once we make the commitment that the justice system is going to be about justice and not punish people before they are convicted, the solutions need to be targeted towards honoring the presumption of innocence,” said John Raphling, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the recent bail report.

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Warren’s case, noted that the defendant was initially released without bail and only taken into custody after failing to appear in court on multiple occasions.

Asked about the fraud claims, he added: “The underlying facts of this case will be presented at court.”

Camacho, however, pointed out that Warren repeatedly returned to court when he missed a few dates and argued that he should have been released under a monitoring program that would have allowed the courts to track him.

Jail budget data suggests that taxpayers have already spent more than $6,000 to detain Warren, who has a handful of convictions on his record, mostly minor non-violent misdemeanors, dating back to more than eight years ago. He is also hearing impaired and has struggled to navigate daily life in jail.

Warren said some of his family members didn’t even know he is in jail and that he didn’t want to ask his loved ones for bail money, citing a lesson his grandfather taught him about self-reliance.

“I don’t ask for no help,” he said.

Instead, Warren said he tries to pass the days asleep for hours on end, alone in his cell: “I just isolate.” your social media marketing partner
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