Capitol Alert

Scrap California’s bail system, chief justice says

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye speaks during her keynote address at Fall Convocation at the Mondavi Center on Sept. 20, 2016 in Davis.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye speaks during her keynote address at Fall Convocation at the Mondavi Center on Sept. 20, 2016 in Davis. rpench@sacbee.com

California’s chief justice on Tuesday called for an end to the use of money bail, urging the state to instead release defendants based on whether they pose a threat to public safety.

Her comments followed the publication of a report on bail compiled by a working group of California judges. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye assembled the group last year to study complaints that the practice unfairly penalizes the poor.

“I support the conclusion that California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety and agree with the recommendation to replace our current system of money bail with one based on a defendant’s risk to the public,” she said in a statement. “This report should serve as a framework as we work with the Governor and the Legislature to address these issues that are central to our values and responsibilities of providing fair and equal access to justice for all Californians.”

Critics have long contended that money bail, which allows the accused to secure their release from custody during trial if they can pay a fee determined by the severity of their alleged crime, creates an unequal system of justice based on wealth. California’s bail schedule is about five times higher than the national average, according to studies, and state data shows that nearly two-thirds of inmates in California jails on any given day have not yet been convicted of a crime.

The working group’s report includes 10 recommendations to establish a new system of assessments and supervision, where courts determine release “based on whether a defendant poses a threat to public safety and is likely to return to court – without regard for the defendant’s financial situation,” and county “pretrial services” agencies monitor defendants out of custody to ensure they make it back for their next hearing.

“California’s current pretrial release and detention system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety because it bases a person’s liberty on financial resources rather than the likelihood of future criminal behavior and exacerbates socioeconomic disparities and racial bias,” the report concluded.

A push to overhaul the bail system fell short in the Legislature last session, and proponents are now working with Cantil-Sakauye and Gov. Jerry Brown to revise their plan. Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, who carried the legislation, declared the judges’ recommendations a victory for their efforts.

“All year long, our opponents have pointed at the Chief Justice’s working group on bail and said wait for its recommendations before moving forward,” Herzberg said in a statement. “Well, we did, and the judges have ruled: We must replace money bail because it is unsafe and unfair.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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