California Judges Lobby for End to Money Bail System

(CN) – California has lulled itself into a false sense of security regarding money bail, a San Diego judge who worked on a report that recommends largely doing away with money bail statewide told the state Judicial Council on Thursday.

Earlier this year, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye put together a team of 11 judges and one head clerk from courts around the state to study whether the bail system needs to be changed and, if so, how.

San Diego Superior Judge Lisa Rodriguez said the pretrial detention working group heard from over 40 representatives from all over the justice spectrum, including the bail industry, and the message was unanimous that California’s bail system as we know it needs drastic reform.

“What we found surprised us. The consensus from virtually every person who came to speak to us and every group was that this system needed to be changed,” said Rodriguez, one of the group’s co-chairs. “The system we currently have is not doing what we want it to do, which is to protect public safety and ensure fair and equal access to justice for all.”

Thursday’s presentation by the working group follows the release of a critical report of the state’s bail system, recommending courts expand their use of assessment tools to determine whether a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to public safety, and implement some form of pretrial services in every county, among other changes.

“We learned that people charged with very serious and violent offenses are generally released on bail with no supervision and they may commit crimes while out on bail,” Rodriguez said. “And the amount they have posted does not make them any safer for our community. Somehow we have lulled ourselves into believing that we are safer just because a person has more money available, more economic resources to make bail.

“Simultaneously, we have people who remain in custody because they do not have the same economic resources but they may not be as much of a risk to the community.”

Cantil-Sakauye has been a vocal critic of money bail, joining with Gov. Jerry Brown in August to condemn the current system as unfairly penalizing the poor. On Thursday, she repeated that stance before the council.

“Our state’s pretrial system compromises victim and public safety and our current system of money bail should be replaced,” she said. “I support your conclusion that a pretrial system that relies on the financial resources of the accused is neither fair nor safe.”

Judge Brian Back of Ventura, the group’s other co-chair, stressed the recommendations are going to be costly, and the courts shouldn’t rely on the idea being touted by some lawmakers that eliminating money bail will result in fewer people in jail and savings for the taxpayers.

“Let’s assume there is a reduction in custody. Any costs that one might think could be saved are basically pie in the sky. Any savings of costs is not going to fund what we are suggesting. What is going to fund what we’re suggesting is new funding and consistent funding,” Back said. “We know that it’s a seismic change we’re recommending here. We understand that potentially it could cost a huge amount of funds.”

State Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who sits on the council as a legislative representative, said she had some concerns those costs.

“I don’t want to be a wet blanket on this because this is all very exciting, but when you start talking about money that becomes a real challenge,” she said, noting probation departments are already stretched thin. “Probation argues that they don’t have enough to do what is what it is we want them to do today.”

Jackson also questioned Back on the political impacts on judges deciding to release a detainee based on a risk assessment who may go out and commit other crimes.

“Judges are people and in particular jurisdictions when cases are high visibility, there is a real threat that I suspect that judges as human beings experience when they are making a decision to release someone,” she said. “You throw the dice, you make a bad call and it comes back and affects the judge. How are we going to protect the courts from those impacts or are we going to have to recognize that some judges are going to keep people in jail who may not be required to just to keep some of the heat off.”

“The issue is humans,” Back replied. “We can’t come up with a perfect system. Those things you’re talking about are going to happen. That’s why the education is so important for all justice partners. And let’s face it, the judge has a tough job. If you don’t want to be a judge, don’t sign up to do it.

“There are decisions that are going to be controversial. The judge has to go forward and make the best decision that he or she can. And that’s why we’re suggesting what we are because we want to give that judicial officer the additional information so he or she can make the best decision they can.”

He continued: “Bad stuff is going to happen, whether they’re out on bail or on pretrial services. We hope to minimize that. But people who are only in custody because they couldn’t come up with bail – that’s wrong.”

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