Celebrating the Anniversary of the Humphrey Decision – The Only Real Bail Reform in California

Editor's Note:

Today we honor Mr. Kenneth Humphrey - the man at the center of challenging pretrial detention and the bail system that has forced thousands of Californians to be priced out of their liberty. We also highlight the communities present in courts across the state to ensure the promise of the Humphrey decision.

On January 25, 2018, the California appellate court published a groundbreaking decision — In Re: Kenneth Humphrey — that challenged California’s broken bail system as unlawful and discriminatory. The case, brought by Civil Rights Corps and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, was filed on behalf of Mr. Kenneth Humphrey — to date the most significant figure in the struggle for bail reform in California history. Mr. Humphrey, a retiree residing in San Francisco, was accused of following a neighbor into his residential hotel room and stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne. He was originally detained on a $600,000 bail amount. His attorneys filed a habeas appeal challenging not only his detention, but also the bail system itself that forced him and thousands of others across the state to be priced out of their liberty and stripped of their freedom. The 2018 January appellate ruling declared Mr. Humphrey’s detention as unconstitutional, and created a new pathway to ending pretrial detention and a parasitic bail bond industry that capitalized on the criminal court system’s targeting of communities of color.

One year later, we honor the courage of Mr. Humphrey, the vigilance of his legal team, and the movement of communities impacted by money bail and pretrial detention who are using the Humphrey decision to free their loved ones. The anniversary though comes at an extremely tenuous time in California’s moment of changes in bail law. Rather than building off of the Humphrey decision to further the states’ need for pretrial freedom while eliminating money bail — in the end of 2018 legislators voted in an expansive pretrial detention system masquerading as bail reform called SB10 which gives unfettered power to judges, and relies on racist risk assessment tools, to incarcerate those accused of a crime.

And simultaneously, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, despite public messaging of supporting bail reform, challenged the Humphrey decision, and it is now headed to the California Supreme Court to be heard later this year. Given the threat of SB10, as well as a ballot initiative referendum brought by the bail industry that aims to bring back money bail, the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Humphrey may ultimately determine the fate of pretrial justice in California.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the spirit of Mr. Humphrey’s fight — to not only end unconstitutional use of money bail, but to restrict pretrial detention to only exceptional cases. But if the Supreme Court sides with the prosecutors and does not limit the framework of SB10, then judges can have wide discretion to detain, hundreds of thousands of people could be detained every year, and California’s movement for pretrial justice will suffer a significant blow

What we know from one year since the Humphrey ruling is that communities are ready and able to not only eliminate money bail, but pretrial detention as well — and will use any tool at our disposal to free our people. When De-Bug heard about the ruling at the beginning of 2018 we partnered with other participatory defense hubs and community groups across the state to hold a coordinated set of actions in front of county courts on February 21, 2018 so those most impacted by bail could know about the change in law. Under the banner “Day in California Court” community groups comprised of people directly impacted by the broken bail system held rallies in front of 9 different county courts from San Francisco to San Diego, handing out information about how to work with public defenders to secure release through the new bail hearings that the Humphrey ruling made possible. They then filled the courtrooms to do court watch, letting judges and prosecutors know that the community is present. The day was so powerful, groups went on to build sustained court watch and court intervention strategies to ensure court actors could be held to the Humphrey standard. We chronicle this collective initiative on a site called DayinCAcourt.org — a running public diary of California’s court system.

Through this work it also became apparent that a legal win does not automatically translate to freedom. If the Humphrey ruling was a new lever for freedom, its value was only realized when pulled by the community and pro-active public defenders. For the entrenched culture of the courts to change, communities need to be in the court exerting power and pressure. 

We celebrate Mr. Humphrey, his freedom, the movement that was fueled through his fight, and call on the Supreme Court to be responsive to the call for justice by the people of California.

Please check out this photo essay chronicling Mr. Humphrey as he goes to court for a hearing just days before the anniversary of the ruling. He starts his day at home, with this partner, and challenging the allegations of his case from the position of power that freedom affords, without the coercive pressure of being locked up pretrial.

Attached are snapshot stories from organizers that are sitting with families and community members in Humphrey bail hearings that show both what is possible, and what is needed to achieve freedom in California.

Mr. Humphrey's Day In Court:
By Charisse Domingo

This is a photo essay of Mr. Kenneth Humphrey on the day he went to court in late January 2019. Mr. Humphrey's case, and his fight for freedom, challenged California's broken bail system, and has resulted in people across California who were otherwise detained because they couldn't afford bail, to be released pretrial through what is being called Humphrey Hearings. To date, he is the most significant figure in the struggle for bail reform in state's history. His appellate case will be heard by the California Supreme Court later this year, and will significantly impact the fate of pretrial justice for the state and country.

Eight months after he was released from his own Humphrey hearing, Mr. Kenneth Humphrey sits in his home with his longtime partner Judy. They live a quiet life - walks on the lake, family gatherings.

Pausing in front of the hallway mirror before he heads to court, Mr. Humphrey is relieved to wear his own clothes as he attends court.

While Mr. Humphrey is grateful to be out on his own recognizance, the thought of facing a life sentence still wears heavy on his mind. Mr. Humphrey is accused of stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne from a neighbor. And because of his prior strikes from years ago, he is facing his 3rd strike.

Ms. Judy watches the news as Mr. Humphrey sits with his morning breakfast of tea, egg and toast. In about half an hour, he will be leaving home to go to court to hear about whether his case is set for trial or dismissed.

Morning peaks as Mr. Humphrey and Ms. Judy head out to court. To make the 9AM court appearance in San Francisco, they leave home by 7AM and sit in traffic.

Ms. Judy has made all of Mr. Humphrey's court appearances to support him, and today is no different. This time, they head inside to court together, rather than she waiting from the pews and he walking out of the locked doors in an orange jumpsuit.

About a year ago, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and community organizations with the Participatory Defense Network like Young Women's Freedom Center stood outside the steps of this courthouse to celebrate the historic Humphrey ruling that changed money bail in California as we know it. Today, a year later, Mr. Humphrey stands outside those same steps, carving a space in history for those courageous enough to change it.

Related Stories:
A Day in CA Court  – A Running Public Diary of the California Courts

SV De-Bug's Letter of Opposition to California's False Bail Reform Bill (SB10)
Humphrey Decision