Here’s how to make California’s justice system a little more fair

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye. rpench@sacbee.com

If California’s goal is to attain a more just and equal justice system, then it must fix the bail system that too often victimizes poor people who end up in jail for relatively minor crimes.

That is the message of an important report released Tuesday by a committee established by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. The 57-page report, drafted by 11 judges and the Santa Cruz County Superior Court’s executive officer, is resonating with legislators and should have national implications.

Its fundamental finding: California holds low-risk defendants in jail pending trial simply because they cannot afford bail, and releases people who can afford to make bail even if they pose a risk to public safety. The report doesn’t recommend issuing get-out-jail-free cards. Instead, it urges that people who pose risks be held, even if they have money, and that people who pose little risk be allowed to return to their jobs and families pending the outcome of their cases.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, placed legislation to overhaul the bail system on hold pending the report ordered by Cantil-Sakauye. Now, Hertzberg told an editorial board member, he will press ahead with hearings into the bail business, and will revise the legislation. The bail bonds business likely won’t bend without a fight.

The money bail system may be obscure to people who have not experienced it, or don’t work in the criminal justice system. But few who are familiar with it can justify it as it now exists, unless they are in the bail business – and it is a big business. The face value of bail bonds has exceeded $4.4 billion annually in recent years.

Although it’s not clear how many people could be freed if the system were overhauled, three counties offered estimates: 15 percent in Fresno, 53 percent in San Francisco and 59 percent in San Mateo. Given that the total jail population averages 48,000 in California, between 7,000 and 28,000 people could be eligible for release who now cannot afford bail. Such a reduction in jail populations would ease burdens on counties, many of which face court-ordered inmate caps.

Cantil-Sakauye is a former prosecutor, trial judge and an appointee of Republican governors. She also has a sense of fairness that is reflected in the report and in her statement Tuesday that the “current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety.”

The report, which offers 10 recommendations, says victims’ rights must be taken into consideration. As it is, defendants who can afford to make bail are freed “often without any conditions placed on release.” In any overhaul, special care should be given to cases involving domestic violence, child abuse, stalking or sexual assault, the report noted, rightly so.

The report said mentally ill individuals or drug abusers should be given treatment and services, not merely warehoused. A Southern California Public Radio report last month quoted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as saying 20 percent of the estimated 18,000 people locked up in its jails had some type of mental illness. A report last year estimated that 35 to 40 percent of San Francisco County jail inmates are being treated for mental illness.

The state, in other words, must ensure that arrestees who suffer from mental illness are given treatment, not simply tossed back onto the street to fend for themselves. Treatment will cost money. The state also must pay to expand or establish county pretrial services so skilled officers can determine the degree of risk a person might pose.

The bail reform report should not be left in the electronic equivalent of a dusty shelf. Lawmakers must be careful in any legislation they adopt; public safety is at stake. But California’s current bail system unfair taxes on poor people who commit relatively minor crimes, and that serves neither justice nor equality.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee