Dean Rohrer NewsArt

Editorial: County must cut pretrial detainees

Published: Sunday, Jul. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

In the United States, we presume that individuals who have been arrested are innocent until proven guilty. And as then-U.S. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, "In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception."

Yet California's county jails are filled mostly with people who are awaiting trial, who have not been found guilty and sentenced.

The average county has a pretrial population of 65 percent to 70 percent of total jail population – ranging from 53 percent in Orange County to 88 percent in Fresno County. Two-thirds of the people in Sacramento County jails before Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment law took effect last October were awaiting trial.

And the dirty little secret is that many pretrial detainees are in jail because they don't have the money to post bail. The default bail for any felony arrest in Sacramento County is $10,000. Can't come up with cash or 10 percent to 15 percent to buy a bail bond? Stay in the downtown jail at a cost to the county of $111.52 a day as you wait for your court date – not going to your job or providing for your family – even as the jail system struggles to find space for people who were convicted and sentenced.

This makes no sense, financially or in terms of justice.

As the new realignment law calls for convicts sentenced for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual crimes to serve time in county systems – instead of state prison – counties should not lock up people awaiting trial who pose little danger and little risk of flight before their court date.

Sacramento County's Community Corrections Partnership says it is committed to reducing pretrial detention, but a program has been "slow to ramp up," according to Chief Deputy for Correctional and Court Security Services Jaime Lewis.

The Sheriff's Department since March has been interviewing pretrial detainees using the respected Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument – looking at current charges, criminal history, residence and employment stability, family ties, history of substance abuse – and preparing a packet for judges to determine whether an individual should be released pending trial.

The first three months were a major disappointment. An average 475 a month were found to be low risk to public safety and for flight. Yet Sacramento Superior Court judges released only 69 a month (14 percent).

Since then, Judge Lawrence Brown, to his credit, has taken charge. He has pledged, "there will be sufficient use of the tool to create a pool of defendants to test the efficacy of the Virginia model." For the week of July 16, the court released 35 of 67 qualified defendants. That would translate to 140 a month.

The county has yet to implement key parts of a successful program, however.

By mid-August, the Sheriff's Department expects to be doing automated calls to remind pretrial defendants of court dates. By September, the sheriff wants to have a supervised release program – an intermediate between simple release or detention pending trial – with day reporting or electronic monitoring.

Last September, the partnership's consultant suggested that 12 percent to 15 percent of the pretrial population did not need to be in jail – potentially freeing 281 beds for sentenced inmates. The county should set that as a goal and work toward it.

But instead of setting goals, figuring out how to achieve them and determining costs, each county department simply submits spending proposals. Little or nothing is left after sheriff and probation positions are funded. Missing is a major focus on reducing jail populations, reducing recidivism or turning lives around.

The committee on Thursday delayed a vote on 2012-13 spending priorities until Aug. 23. Only action by the Board of Supervisors is likely to break the impasse. It should send signals that if the Community Corrections Partnership fails to fund anything beyond custody and supervision positions, the board will send the plan back for a redo.

BASELINE PROFILE FOR SACRAMENTO COUNTY JAIL SYSTEM

September 2011 (before realignment began in October 2011)

• Jail population: 4,097

Pretrial detainees: 67 percent

Sentenced inmates: 33 percent

• Crimes for which pretrial detainees were arrested

Property/drug/alcohol/other nonviolent offense: 63 percent

Violent/weapons/sex offense: 37 percent

• Pretrial detainees' arrest history

No or only one prior arrest: 31 percent

• Pretrial detainees' conviction history

No prior convictions: 43 percent

• Bail

Average pretrial bail: $488,484

Over $300,000: 25.4 percent

$150,000-$300,000: 14.4 percent

$30,000-$150,000: 48.3 percent

Under $30,000: 11.9 percent

Source: Criminal Justice Research Foundation

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