Capitol Alert

Ending bail worries California judges

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye speaks at the Mondavi Center in Davis on Sept. 20, 2016.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye speaks at the Mondavi Center in Davis on Sept. 20, 2016. Sacramento Bee file

Though it failed on the Assembly floor last month, an effort to overhaul California’s bail system is still moving this session after an identical measure passed the state Senate. To succeed the second time around, supporters will have to address concerns recently raised by judges, who are among the groups that will be most directly affected by the changes proposed in Senate Bill 10.

Proponents argue that the current framework of setting bail by crime and then releasing defendants who can post that rate discriminates against the poor, trapping many Californians in custody long before they have been convicted of anything. SB 10 would largely eliminate the use of money bail by having courts rely instead on assessments of an offender’s flight risk and danger to public safety. If deemed necessary, bail would be set based on their ability to pay.

It faces heavy opposition from commercial bail bond agents, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, who argue that monetary stakes are the most effective way to ensure someone shows up in court after being released. Eliminating bail, they say, would cause considerable harm to the public.

The debate now moves back to the lower house. Ahead of SB 10’s final policy hearing in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, 9 a.m. in Room 126 of the Capitol, the Judicial Council of California has weighed in for the first time with a six-page letter voicing its “significant concerns.”

The Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California courts chaired by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is in the midst of its own review of bail. The letter, sent late last month, expresses “conceptual agreement” with the goals of releasing all eligible defendants and emphasizing risk assessment over money bail.

But, it continues, SB 10 as currently formulated “does not establish a reasonable or realistic balance” with “a concern for public safety” and “the administration of justice.”

Judges worry that the proposed changes would restrict their authority by limiting the information they receive about offenders, discouraging any deviation from the recommendations of a risk assessment, and preventing them from detaining defendants who have not committed a serious or violent crime, regardless of the circumstances. They further doubt that courts have the resources to implement the changes, particularly under the quick timeline prescribed by the bill.

Opponents gleefully touted the council’s “scathing” letter as more proof of SB 10’s wrongheadedness. Author Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, counters the bill can be amended to address the judiciary’s issues.

“I am encouraged that the Judicial Council agrees with the bill’s goal to make decisions on pretrial release based on risk rather than wealth,” Hertzberg said in a statement, “and I look forward to working with the Council to make bail reform workable without undercutting judicial discretion to assess risk.”

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Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff