The fate of California’s cash bail industry will now be decided on the 2020 ballot

A law passed in August that would have abolished cash bail in California starting later this year will instead appear on the November 2020 ballot, representing a big victory and relief for the state’s more than 3,000 bail bondsmen faced with the prospect of their career being outlawed.

Proponents of the reform say it would help reduce racial and economic discrimination they say is inherent in California’s cash bail system. But a referendum effort well surpassed the necessary number of signatures to push the law, Senate Bill 10, to a direct voter decision before it can take effect, state officials certified Wednesday.

Senate Bill 10 would have abolished California’s cash bail system effective Oct. 1. In its place, the state would adopt a risk assessment-based bail system, which would determine an individual’s likelihood of returning for court appearances. The law calls for pretrial assessments to categorize arrested persons as low, medium or high risk.

Needing 365,880 signatures by registered voters within 90 days, a coalition called Californians Against the Reckless Bail Scheme picked up more than 575,000 signatures in 70 days to put SB 10 on the November 2020 ballot, the American Bail Coalition announced in a news release.

“We knew with the momentum against this law from people on all sides of the issue, getting on the ballot would not be the problem,” Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said in a prepared statement. “Now we can move on toward defeating this reckless law.”

The successful referendum means cash bail will stick around until at least the November 2020 vote, buying more than a year for the bail bond industry regardless of the ballot outcome.

The American Civil Liberties Union is among organizations that have called for bail reform. A joint statement Thursday by the executive directors of the ACLU’s three California affiliates said cash bail profits off inequality.

“There is no denying that the bail industry hurts California families,” the statement reads. “Its existence is antithetical to our values of justice, fairness, and racial equity. By charging people nonrefundable fees for pretrial release, the bail industry has made billions of dollars off the backs of individuals and families in dire circumstances, especially people most affected by racial and economic inequities in our society and the criminal justice system.”

Sacramento’s storied bail bondsmen disagree, of course.

“The people earn the right to use bail insurance,” said Greg Padilla, owner of Greg Padilla Bail Bonds in Sacramento. “They have to go out and commit a crime, don’t they?”

Padilla co-owns Greg Padilla Bail Bonds with his son, Topo Padilla. The agency has been in business more than 40 years.

“Bail has been around for centuries, and bail is not mandated by law like car insurance and health insurance,” Topo said. “So by law, we have to have those — you have a car, you’ve gotta have car insurance. Bail is something that somebody puts themselves in the position to need. Less than 20 percent of the people that are arrested have to post bail. Eighty percent of the people don’t have to post bail. This legislation was passed with emotion and outright false statistics.”

SB 10 was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown on Aug. 28. As of then, California had 3,200 licensed bail bondsmen, and the industry employed more than 7,000 people total, California Bail Agents Association Vice President Maggie Kreins told The Bee at the time.

Topo Padilla, who also serves as president of Golden State Bail Agents Association, said the bail industry has not changed much in Sacramento since August, but in other California counties, pilot programs are already in place.

“And I am confident these programs are going to fail before they succeed,” he said. “Because this was an unfunded mandate. There was money to put the program together, but no program to operate it. ... Other than the taxpayers, there’s no funding mechanism.”

Topo Padilla noted that the District of Columbia uses the same risk assessment program SB 10 calls for. Extrapolating from the population there and what he says is a $56 million budget, Topo estimated that a similar program in California would cost about $3.2 billion.

“Fiscally, they didn’t have the money,” he said. “Other than the taxpayers, there’s no funding mechanism.”

The American Bail Coalition alleges that risk assessment-based bail systems are inaccurate and that though they use algorithms intended to remove racial and gender biases, they have appeared to make these biases worse.

“SB 10 would cost billions of dollars to implement and does not contain any provision to guarantee defendants would appear in court,” the American Bail Coalition said in a news release. “In addition, it calls for use of a controversial risk assessment tool to determine whether or not a person accused of a misdemeanor is to be detained or released.”

SB 10 was co-authored by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who has defended the legislation.

Topo Padilla took issue with statements Hertzberg made this week reported by the Los Angeles Times that suggested the risk assessment-based bail reform would help decrease the number of innocent people in jail.

“If that is the case, if there’s hundreds and hundreds of people in our county jails that are innocent, then his legislative effort needs to be focused on our law enforcement,” Topo said. “But that’s not the case.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee