Foon Rhee

California emptied prisons, but now jails are packed. Here’s what will help.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, talks with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, right, after lawmakers approved his measure to change the state’s bail and pretrial release policies on May 31.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, talks with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, right, after lawmakers approved his measure to change the state’s bail and pretrial release policies on May 31. The Associated Press

California is leading the charge on ending mass incarceration, but the next big step could hinge on bail reform in the Legislature.

That’s because even as California has reduced the state prison population in recent years, its jail incarceration rate more than doubled between 1983 and 2013, when it was 203 per 100,000 people. That’s on the high end among the states, and 60 percent were pretrial detainees, according to a new study.

Many of those are people who can’t make bail, but a move to change the bail system is up in the air. A sweeping proposal, Senate Bill 10, passed the Senate on May 31 and is in the Assembly. But similar legislation, Assembly Bill 42, narrowly failed in the Assembly on June 1.

Nationally, the local jail population has more than tripled since the 1980s, according to the study. That increase is being driven mostly by far more pretrial detentions and to a lesser degree by jails renting cells to state and federal agencies, the Prison Policy Initiative report says.

Only one-third of those in local jails on an average day have been convicted of a crime, the report says. People are being kept locked up before trial in large measure because of the bail system.

In California, the bail reform measure would do away with the current cash bail system in which people who are arrested put up cash or property to get out until they appear in court. The current setup is unfair. The more affluent, even when accused of more serious crimes, can afford to pay bail and go home. Those who can’t afford bail – even those in for minor offenses – stay in jail, another price of being poor. The average bail is $50,000 – five times the national average – which means scrounging up $5,000 for the bail bondsman.

Under the bill, those accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes would be assessed for how likely they are to skip court and how dangerous they are. Many would be released or just monitored. Bail would be a last resort.

No surprise, bail agents are dead set against it. Law enforcement has raised safety concerns, and local officials worry about increased costs for pretrial services.

Those issues should be addressed, of course. But we should care much more about fairness and justice than the fate of the bail industry.

By the numbers

Jail population measures for selected states in 2013:

State

Incarceration rate (per 100,000)

Pretrial

Arizona

202.6

81%

California

202.7

60%

Colorado

220.8

51%

Florida

247.9

70%

New York

127.9

70%

Nevada

119.0

75%

Texas

170.4

75%

Utah

150.1

43%

Washington

148.4

59%

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

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