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LA Jews Might Be Kibitzing With You On The Phone About Bail Reform

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Los Angeles Jews know more than a bissel about bail reform. (h/t on the Yiddish assist)

It's become a leading cause for some local Jewish organizations, who have spent the last few months lobbying politicians and phone-banking their constituents.

Recently, some 30 volunteers from different Jewish groups met up at the offices of the National Council of Jewish Women in Fairfax Village to dial up strangers about Senate Bill 10, which aims to get rid of cash bail in California. They're explaining what's at stake, and encouraging people to call their politicians about voting for the bill.

Under this bill, a defendant could be released without bail if a judge deems it safe for the public.

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This would be a substantial change. Right now, the options for a low-income defendant are:

Staci Steinberger volunteers at a phone-banking for Senate Bill 10 at the L.A. offices of the National Council of Jewish Women on July 12, 2018. (Photo: Josie Huang)

Staci Steinberger, an IKAR member who was phone-banking at NCJW, told a woman she called, that excessive bail means defendants "can't go to work, they can't take care of their kids, and they can't pay their rent."

Steinberger and others have spent the last few months lobbying their own politicians, despite opposition of SB 10 from law enforcement officials and the bail industry.

Those groups say dismantling the bail system would create chaos in the courts and new costly bureaucracy. But Jewish groups have joined forces with civil rights advocates who say the system punishes the poor and people of color.

Maya Paley, who is director of advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women, says because of experiences like the Holocaust, "we can empathize a lot with communities that are being persecuted and want to speak out about what's right. That is deeply connected to being Jewish for me."

Jews make up one of the most politically liberal groups in the country and they've been prominent in fights for racial equality and women's rights.

Paley says the level of Jewish activism has wavered over the years, but that she's seen a spike in engagement since President Trump was elected. There's not only more interest in criminal justice, but immigration and climate change. Charlottesville was another call to action, when white supremacists spouted anti-Semitic chants.

"So many of us Jews are pretty comfortable here in the United States," says Lee Winkelman of the Religious Action Center -- the social justice arm of Reform Judaism which is the largest Jewish denomination in the country. "To realize that are our status is provisional and can be attacked anytime is a scary moment."

Winkelman says the number of California synagogues working with the center has jumped from 20 to 45 in the last few years, and include not only congregations in liberal bastions like Los Angeles and Berkeley, but those in San Diego, Orange County and the Inland Empire.

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The growing involvement of religious groups is viewed with frustration by some in the bail industry.

"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? It's just not how it works," said Jason Meyerson, a bail agent in Tustin.

Meyerson says how it works is this: when a defendant fails to appear for trial, a bail agent will go find that person. Under SB 10, he predicts that "failure-to-appear rates are guaranteed to go up.

He says SB 10 could benefit a small minority of low-income defendants, but would end up destroying an entire industry, one dominated by small businesses run by women and minorities. He says the measure is "essentially throwing the baby out with the bath water."

The demise of an industry is not on Staci Steinberger's mind when she phone-banks. Instead, she thinks of her grandmother who survived the Holocaust as a child.

"People had stepped up and saved her life," she said, "and the expectation would be that if there are communities that are under persecution that we should be people who would step up."

More phone banks could soon be in the works, says Paley, who's helped organized two of them. August is the final month lawmakers can act on bills this session.

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

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