California lawmakers have unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul pretrial release in the state that could virtually eliminate the use of money bail.
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced legislation last December to change a system they argue unfairly punishes the poor by keeping them stuck in custody if they cannot afford expensive bail rates. Updated with new details last Friday, the proposal envisions instead a system of risk assessment to determine who is released and county services to ensure that offenders appear in court.
“It’s fundamentally broken,” Bonta said of California’s current bail law, which allows each county to set its own bail schedule by crime. Offenders can secure their release by paying the entire amount, to be returned at the conclusion of their case, or applying for a surety bond through companies that charge a 10 percent fee.
Critics contend this creates unequal justice based on wealth – and that has damaging consequences. In California, nearly two-thirds of inmates in jails are being held awaiting trial, according to data collected by the Board of State and Community Corrections, an average of nearly 47,000 people on any given day.
“For a fraction of the cost, you can have people out working, being productive members of society,” Bonta said.
Senate Bill 10 and Assembly Bill 42 would jointly create a statewide risk assessment tool, as a handful of counties have already done, to determine during the intake process whether defendants pose a flight risk or danger to their communities. If not, low-level offenders would be released.
Those charged with serious or violent felonies would still have to appear before a judge, who would set the ultimate conditions of release – but the bills establish a presumption of not using money bail, and even then only at a level that the defendant can afford.
“We have a very limited role for bail,” Bonta said.
The proposal is based on a model that Washington, D.C., has used for more than two decades. Instead of bail, the district employs options like regular check-ins with officers, drug testing and ankle monitors to ensure defendants show up for subsequent court hearings.
Hertzberg and Bonta’s bills also require each county in California to establish a similar pretrial services agency. Bonta said the savings from holding fewer people in jail would more than cover the cost.
The bail industry argues that monetary stakes are the best guarantee that someone will appear in court and that it provides a valuable service at no cost to the taxpayers. The proposal could also face a challenge in the Legislature from law enforcement groups, who have raised concerns that eliminating bail would prevent them from being able to keep the most dangerous people in custody.