Congressional civil rights leaders, including rising Democratic star Sen. Kamala Harris of California, called for national reform of cash bail and other criminal justice issues on Monday at the NAACP convention in Baltimore.
Harris, who was greeted with cheers of "Harris for President," urged reform of the cash bail system that she said preys on minorities and the poor.
"It's not only about criminal-justice reform," the former prosecutor said. "This is also a matter of economic justice, because the person who pays can get out."
She cited the example of a woman arrested for shoplifting. If a judge sets her bail at $20,000, a bondsman charges her $2,000 to post the bail, but without the cash she lingers behind bars in backlogged court system.
"She could sit in jail for weeks, months, possibly years," Harris told a crowded ballroom at the Baltimore Convention Center. "If the system is supposed to have blind justice, is it not an injustice that the person who can pay gets out of jail?"
Harris and other members of Congress presented their legislative priorities Monday highlighting the third day of the annual convention of the NAACP, the country's largest and oldest civil rights organization.
More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the five-day conference, which returned to Baltimore for the first time in 17 years.
In a series of wide-ranging discussions Monday, civil rights leaders called for criminal justice reform, decrying the practice of mass arrests and mandatory minimum sentences that they say target minorities.
Vanita Gupta, the former head of civil rights for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, warned against what she described as regressive practices by the department under President Donald Trump, such as "trying to unwind the Baltimore consent decree."
In the final days of Obama's administration, Baltimore officials entered into the consent decree with the Justice Department to reform the city's Police Department in the wake of Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody. Federal investigators found that Baltimore police routinely carried out unconstitutional and discriminatory practices, largely in the city's poor, black neighborhoods.
But the consent decree has seen less support from Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions has expressed "grave concerns" over such decrees and tried, unsuccessfully, to delay its implementation.
"We are fighting for the very soul of our country right now," Gupta told the crowd in Baltimore.
Later, nine members of Congress, those chosen by NAACP leaders as civil rights "champions," shared their legislative priorities. Sen. Ben Cardin, of Maryland, said he hopes to drum up support for a federal ban on racial profiling, a bill he's pushed unsuccessfully for years.
"We still have racial profiling in police forces around the country," he said. "In Baltimore and other cities, it can be deadly."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, called for a $15 minimum wage, equal pay for women, and free tuition at public colleges.
Harris, the California senator, said she has found an ally in Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul in the effort to reform the cash bail system.
In Maryland, debate over cash bails escalated during the recent General Assembly session, pitting criminal justice reform advocates against the well-financed and politically powerful bail bond industry. As the session closed in April, House Speaker Michael E. Busch ruled out bringing a bill to reform the bail system to the House floor, saying he didn't have the votes.
In Congress, Harris and Paul have co-sponsored a bill that would provide grants to encourage states to abolish cash bails. Taxpayers spend $38 million a day to jail people awaiting trial, according to their bill.
"This issue of money bail is an issue that impacts urban America as much as Appalachia," Harris said.