California’s battle over bail bonds has only just begun

One of this year’s most contentious legislative battles was over requiring those accused of serious crimes to post cash bail to be released from jail while their cases are pending. It was seemingly resolved when a bill to eliminate cash bail was passed after a last-minute redrafting of dubious legality.

Rather than having judges set bail amounts for defendants, the new law would require judges to evaluate their flight risk and decide who should be released and who should be jailed pending trial. The signing of Senate Bill 10, however, was just the opening salvo of a multi-front legal and political war.

The bail bonds industry – private companies that bail out defendants for fees and sometimes for property they post as security – bitterly opposed SB 10. It would put thousands of storefront bail offices, most of them conveniently located near jails, out of business. Led by companies such as Aladdin Bail Bonds, the industry is spending several million dollars to collect the 365,880 signatures of registered voters required to place a repeal referendum on the 2020 ballot.


There’s virtually no doubt that the referendum will qualify, automatically suspending the new law until voters decide its fate. Faced with extinction, the industry will spend heavily to kill the legislation. Its proponents – primarily criminal justice reform and civil rights groups – don’t appear to have big money to defend it.

The new law’s supporters are also divided. The rewrite that granted judges the ultimate authority over who stays in jail or is released alienated some anti-bail groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. They argue that judges would tend to keep defendants in jail rather than risk the onus if someone released without bail commits a heinous crime.

Dan Walters.JPG
Dan Walters

Also, bail bond firms may sue to overturn the new law, alleging that those late changes violate a constitutional requirement, passed by voters in 2016, that requires bills to be in print for 72 hours before being passed. SB 10 sat in limbo for nearly a year, but was suddenly revived in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Aug. 16. A day later – on a Friday afternoon – massive amendments were submitted to the Assembly clerk’s office.

However, official records, including the bill itself, say the amendments were adopted the following Monday, Aug. 20, just before the Assembly approved it on a 42-31 vote. A day later, the Senate gave final approval, sending the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown on a 26-12 vote.

The legal challenge would hinge on whether the 72-hour notice period began when the amendments were submitted on Aug. 17 or when they were adopted on Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, another case before the state Supreme Court could end, or at least severely curtail, cash bail regardless of whether SB 10 survives. In January, a state appeals court in San Francisco declared that judges must consider whether defendants can afford cash bail, bolstering the argument behind SB 10 that bail discriminates against the poor.

Justice J. Anthony Kline, Brown’s close friend and one-time legal adviser, wrote the opinion, which begins with a long quote from Brown’s 1979 State of the State address calling for bail reform. Attorney General Xavier Becerra refused to appeal Kline’s ruling, but San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon did. Lawyers are busily submitting briefs seeking to influence the state Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is not a disinterested party. She has been a public advocate of bail reform and was a major behind-the-scenes figure in the late changes to SB 10.

Dan Walters is a columnist at CALMatters. He can be contacted at


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