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of people in the San Mateo County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and are being held only because of the current bail system.*

*based on most recent data available from the CA Board of State and Community Corrections daily average prison populations in county jails.


"The judge looked up at the clock...He had gone through 10 matters in about 30 minutes."

I want to see the disparities in the court system and impact its decision making process.

Why are you in court today?
Why should the bail system change?

The bail system should change because it's unfair for families to be torn apart when they could be working and helping each other.

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a day in san mateo court

It’s a Friday afternoon and attorneys keep walking in and out of the San Mateo court building. Not many families seem to be around. Lita and I are lined up behind attorneys to get into court. After collecting our personal belongings from the metal detectors, we make our way up to the fourth floor to the in-custody misdemeanor and felony arraignment court.

As we walk into the courtroom, we see ten people, mainly of people of color, sitting behind a glass window wearing orange suits. Compared to most arraignments I have been to, the courtroom is relatively empty. There are only three people sitting out in the pews to support their loved ones. The individuals sitting behind the glass window glance throughout the court, possibly hoping for someone in their family to show up. I wonder whether their families have even been notified of their arrest or if Pretrial Services has reached out to them. Pretrial Services is a county agency that interviews each arrested and booked person, and recommends whether they should be released without having to pay bail. Ultimately, it’s just a recommendation, and the judge makes the final decision.

The judge starts at 1:30pm going through the calendar by calling inmates’ names. There is a Private Defender (San Mateo’s version of court appointed attorneys) of the day who represents all the people in custody. All the players of the courtroom, the judge, the D.A., and the Private Defender are white.

In the first case, a Latino male was picked up on an arrest warrant. Bail was initially at $1 million, but the D.A. files to reconsider the offer of bail at all, due to a change in circumstances. Although the Private Defender opposes it, the D.A. argues that there should be no bail offer at all. The judge then raises bail to $2 million and explains that a bail hearing could be scheduled, if needed. At this time, two Latina women sitting in the front pews walk out of the courtroom.

The next person is a white male who plead not guilty to a charge of Possession of Controlled Substance, his bail is set at $7,500.

What we find interesting is that the judge looks at the clock every time he calls out a new case as if he is trying to beat some sort of record.

In another case, the judge screams at an inmate, calling his name a couple of times, and the inmate does not respond. The judge decides to push his matter to the end of the calendar.

A Pacific Islander man pleads not guilty to the charges. He had no bail in San Joaquin in another case, but in San Mateo County the judge sets his bail at $7,500. The bail for the next person is $50,000 due to a prior strike.

A black man comes forward to the glass window as the judge calls out his name. The judge also raises his voice at him. The man pleads not guilty to the charges. His initial bail is $10,000 but the D.A. mentions there is a prior strike. The judge then decides to raise his bail to $50,000. It seems to us that regardless of the charges, those who have any prior strike (regardless of how far back that strike was) get a $50,000 bail, and haven’t seen anyone who has the money to bail out.

For another white male, the Private Defender makes the point that he is eligible for Prop 47 for a drug charge. The judge makes a determination to set him for misdemeanor court. A court date is set to figure out whether the DA will approve charging as a misdemeanor. Prosecutors have all the discretion to place any charge they want on a person -- so they can get someone’s bail increased by just charging a more serious offense. This man’s bail is set at $10,000.

The man sent to the back of the calendar is called again. The judge keeps asking him if he can hear. He decides that the man is unresponsive and suspends the criminal proceedings to start competency proceedings. The judge sets this matter in the competency calendar in 6 weeks. He is facing a felony charge and bail is set at $25,000.

The judge looks up at the clock and sighs in relief. It must be around 2:00pm. He went through about 10 matters in 30 minutes.


Another attorney from the Private Defender’s Office requests the judge to add on to the calendar six new matters. The judge and the private defender engage in a discussion about why the matters were not added in the early morning. As the private defender tries to explain, the judge says “that’s not my responsibility” and insists that he is done with his matters. After going back and forth with each other, the judge eventually decides to add the matters to his calendar.


Overall, today in court bail in San Mateo County ranged from $7,500 to $50,000.





the amount of time inmates in county jail get to see their loved ones for during visits, up to twice a week




about this




NBC Bay Area: "Enhancements Leave Thousands of California Inmates With Extraordinarily Long Sentences" - San Mateo DA opposes prison reform




The Guardian: "Wealthy murder suspect freed on bail as man accused of welfare fraud stuck in jail"



Equal Justice Under Law: "Ending the American Money Bail System


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