Capitol Alert

California’s bail system doesn’t make us safer, attorney general says

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Tuesday that he will not appeal a recent court decision on excessive bail, adding his voice to the growing statewide push to overhaul a money bail system that criminal justice advocates argue is discriminatory to poor Californians.

Late last month, the appeals court in San Francisco ordered a new bail hearing for Kenneth Humphrey, a retired shipyard worker who had been held in jail for more than eight months on $350,000 bail. Humphrey was accused of breaking into a neighbor’s apartment, threatening to put a pillow over his head and stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne.

In its ruling, the panel said that setting bail so high a defendant cannot pay it is only justified when the suspect is too dangerous to release before trial, and it instructed the trial judge to reconsider what amount Humphrey could afford and whether he posed a risk to public safety.

Becerra, at a press conference in Sacramento, said he would not appeal that decision to the California Supreme Court. He added that his office would not defend future bail determinations that do not take into account what the defendant can afford to pay and whether there are alternatives to holding them in jail before trial.

“It’s time for bail reform now,” he said. “Bail decisions should be based on danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket.”

Becerra’s decision not to appeal sets a precedent for California courts, but does not force them to change how they set bail.

Under the current system, counties decide their 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 that it creates unequal justice based on wealth, trapping many Californians in jail for minor crimes; nearly two-thirds of inmates on any given day are being held awaiting trial.

“Today’s bail system does not make you safer, because if you’ve got the money, and you’re dangerous, you still get out,” Becerra said. “You should not be allowed free if you are a harm to society.”

With support from lawmakers and California’s top judge, the campaign to eliminate money bail in California has ramped up over the past year. A bill to replace the system with an assessment that would release defendants based on whether they pose a flight risk or a danger to their communities was held in the Legislature last session as proponents negotiate a compromise with Gov. Jerry Brown. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye released a report in October urging a similar overhaul.

Opponents of the effort, including bail agents and law enforcement, argue monetary stakes are the best way to ensure someone shows up for court. They have raised concerns about the potential cost of the proposed changes, and contend that California could much more easily address the wealth disparity by simply lowering the bail schedule.

In a statement, the California Bail Agents Association blasted Becerra for “choosing political expediency over public safety.”

“To support the cause of defendant Humphrey in this case is a slap in the face to all law-abiding Californians,” the organization said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff