After years of bargaining, waiting, pleading and bargaining some more, having a bill in hand that would kill California’s predatory cash bail industry should be a cause for celebration. Instead, it has been more like the cause of an ulcer.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats passed Senate Bill 10 after acknowledging, but ultimately dismissing, the warnings of progressive groups that the legislation could do the opposite of what’s intended and put more poor and minority defendants behind bars while awaiting trial.
On Monday, Assembly Democrats did the same, but by a far thinner margin. It was an uncomfortable political two-step, to say the least.
“This might not go as far as people may want, either to the so-called left or the so-called right,” Assemblyman David Chiu said Monday before the vote. “But we need to do something.“
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Indeed, SB 10, carried by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, is far from perfect. But if there were ever a time not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, this is it.
Gov. Jerry Brown should remember this when the legislation lands on his desk. His decision should come down to weighing what’s certain versus what’s possible.
If SB 10 dies, it is certain that hundreds of thousands of Californians will remain behind bars, not because they are dangerous or at risk of running away, but simply because they can’t afford to get out. The median bail amount in California is $50,000, five times the national average. People’s lives will continue to be ruined, as they languish in jail for weeks, months and even years at a time, even though they have only been charged, not convicted.
“They can’t pay their rent. They can’t pay child support or take their kids to school. There’s so many other consequences to that,” Hertzberg told The Sacramento Bee. “That isn’t patriotic. That isn’t American. That isn’t the right thing to do.”
But if SB 10 becomes law, it’s also certain that the for-profit bail industry will die, eliminating a powerful, deep-pocketed lobbying force at the state Capitol.
The legislation replaces cash bail with “risk assessments” to determine whether people should be set free or held in jail until trial. Money would no longer determine someone’s fate in at least one corner of California’s criminal justice system.
Compare that to what some public defenders and progressive groups say could happen under SB 10.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and PICO California insist that it’s possible more people, not fewer, will end up behind bars instead of being let go on their own recognizance or with an state-funded electronic monitoring device. That’s because unlike earlier versions of the legislation, the current version would give judges the discretion to hold people under an expanded process for “preventive detention,” opening a new front of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
SB 10 also would give the Board of Supervisors in each county a say in who should be eligible for bail, possibly creating yet another patchwork system of punishment for those accused of crimes across the state.
So, no, SB 10 isn’t perfect. And, yes, legislators should do as they promised this week and work to monitor and refine the system in the coming years. But the opportunity before the governor right now, the certainty of righting the many wrongs of the cash bail industry, is just too good to possibly pass up.