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On the Frontier of Justice Reform

Jess Farris

Jess Farris spends her days focused on the affairs of pretrial defendants who are locked up in California jails and their loved ones who are scrambling to get them out.

The director of criminal justice and the policy and advocacy counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, Farris, ’12, is a key player in a statewide effort to advance bail reform in the state legislature.

Many organizations are engaged in a massive statewide coalition seeking to reform a criminal justice system that keeps pretrial defendants in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

But with the nation’s largest prison system located in Los Angeles, Farris’ role in the effort is pivotal.

“I’m owning this for Southern California,” she said, explaining that her day-to-day work is preparing with fellow advocates for a legislative session that begins in January, when long-awaited reforms will come up for consideration.

At stake, Farris said, is the fate of countless families caught up in a system that requires criminal defendants to post cash bail that leaves families at the mercy of bail agencies.

“Families are lured into contracts that are super-exploitive,” Farris said. “Ninety-five percent is nonrefundable. Families are scraping money together to purchase freedom and safety, then facing months and months of installment fees. You never get that money back, even if all charges are dropped.”

The money bail system that operates in California and most states devastates families of limited means, Farris said.

“It can mean the cost of a job, school or car payments if you’re even in jail for a few days,” she said. “We’re seeing it for sometimes months and years. People are simply too poor to get out.”

Making the situation even more troubling, she added, is that bail amounts are 19 percent higher for Latino male defendants than for white male defendants and 35 percent higher for black male defendants than for white male defendants.

Farris credits Professors Donald Tibbs and David Cohen with opening her eyes to the scale of injustice in the criminal courts.

“I walked away from Tibbs’ class understanding things in a way that I had not as a privileged person who had not seen how the system did not work,” she said. “In Cohen’s Con Law II class, I saw how illegal things are happening all the time. It’s up to rabble rousers and activists to shine a light on those things so that judges can focus on the right things.”

Though Gov. Jerry Brown and California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye have signaled support for reforming the state’s money bail system, Farris said, she and her allies are working to ensure that provisions of the proposed law clear the legislative process without getting “thrown under the bus.”

That is not guaranteed, Farris explained, since bail agencies have powerful allies.

“These small companies are backed by major insurance companies that lobby to make sure that bail reform doesn’t come to the state,” Farris said. “it’s private profiteering from people’ s misery.”

It’s a race against time, with a legislative committee scheduled to take up the matter in January.   

And in December, Farris suddenly embarked on a new enterprise that is competing for her attention: the birth of a daughter, with husband Sean Bigley, '12. The baby arrived a month ahead of schedule, forcing Farris to move up a six-month break she planned to take from the ACLU to focus on motherhood. It helps that Bigley, who practiced in Philadelphia through much of 2017, has started an of counsel position at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae in Los Angeles.

If there’s any way to monitor activities in the Sacramento statehouse in between feeding and nap times, it seems inevitable that Farris will find it.