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PHOTO ESSAY: Mr. Humphrey's day in court

Photo Essay by Charisse Domingo // SV De-Bug

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 — 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.

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