California Judicial Council Ends Covid-Related Emergency Bail Schedule

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — By a vote of 17–2, California’s Judicial Council rescinded a statewide emergency bail schedule, which had set bail at $0 for people arrested for low-level crimes to curb the spread of coronavirus in jails.

The council enacted the emergency rule in early April. It applies to people accused of misdemeanors and some felonies with the exceptions of those charged with violent felonies, stalking, child abuse, and domestic violence. 

The emergency rule, which will now end June 20, was a temporary response to the state’s public health crisis. Since jails are a tinderbox for contagion, the state corrections department moved to stop receiving new inmates, fearing ignition of an outbreak by anyone from the outside. Sheriffs began to cite and release offenders, a move unpopular with law enforcement as some of those arrested went on to reoffend.

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

The Judicial Council announced plans for a vote to repeal the emergency bail order earlier this week, as California is well into a phased reopening of businesses deemed “non-essential” and the corrections department has opened intake at state institutions for convicted criminals, which should ease the population burden at county jails.

Courts can still determine whether to impose bail locally or continue to have it presumptively set at $0, though the council recommends the latter option.

“The Judicial Council’s action better reflects the current needs of our state, which has different health concerns and restrictions county-to-county based on the threat posed by Covid-19,” Council member Justice Marsha Slough said in a statement. “We urge local courts to continue to use the emergency Covid-19 bail schedule where necessary to protect the health of the community, the courts, and the incarcerated. We are also asking courts to report back by June 20 on whether they plan to keep the COVID-19 emergency bail schedule, or another reduced bail schedule.”

The council could reinstate the $0 bail schedule should the public health crisis suddenly worsen.

In a memo recommending the repeal, the council explained why it did not circulate it for public comment ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

“This proposal has not been circulated for comment due to the urgent need to address the rapidly changing public health and safety conditions that vary from county to county across the state,” the memo states. “As courts continue expansion of court services and counties undertake phased reopening, the council must act swiftly to return discretion to the courts for their criminal procedures.”

Slough said in a statement Monday that since the council enacted $0 bail, “the vast majority of people released on the Covid-19 bail schedule did not reoffend.”

In a statement, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods also said the crime rate has remained low. 

“Law enforcement has put out this false narrative that too many people are reoffending after getting arrested. In fact, crime is down and the overwhelming majority of people released have stayed out of trouble,” Woods said.

He urged the council to keep the emergency bail schedule in effect. 

“Rescinding the emergency bail schedule early is a great example of exactly the kind of systemic racism people are protesting against,” he said. “Now is not the time to undo the progress we’ve made in the last three months and begin filling our jails with Black and Brown people again. The efforts we’ve made to stop Covid from running through our jails seem to have worked.”

The only “no” votes came from the two lawmakers on the council, State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, and Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.

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