California Lawmakers Up Ante Against Money Bail With Pair of Bills

Undaunted by recent setbacks at the ballot box, California lawmakers introduced two bills Wednesday aimed at reforming the state’s bail system.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Following the failure of an initiative to eliminate cash bail statewide, state lawmakers introduced a pair of bills Wednesday in a bid to chip away at California’s bail system.

If passed and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate Bill 262 and Assembly Bill 329 will set bail at $0 for misdemeanors and “low-level felonies,” and require that bail money be refunded if an arrestee makes all their court appearances, their charges are dropped or their case is dismissed.

“The jailhouse door should not swing open and closed based on how much money someone has. There is no disputing the present system wrongly treats people who are rich and guilty better than those who are poor and innocent,” Assembly member Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, said in a statement. “The status quo is indefensible and disproportionately impacts low-income Californians and communities of color. Money bail epitomizes unequal justice, and we must continue our fight for equal justice under the law.”

The bills stem from voters’ rejection of Proposition 25, which would have enacted Senate Bill 10, a law that abolished cash bail in favor of computer-based “risk assessment” models. Under the risk assessment models, judges would determine whether and under what conditions pretrial detainees can be safely released to await trial. 

The bail industry spent millions of dollars campaigning against the measure and took the brunt of the blame for its defeat. But community organizers also decried it as an expansion of law enforcement power and resources. They also weren’t crazy about using algorithms to predict someone’s danger to the public.

State Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles who co-wrote SB 10 with Bonta and state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, vowed to continue his longstanding fight against the bail bonds industry last November. 

“The arc of justice is long, but it bends toward ending cash bail. Millions of dollars from the predatory bail industry may buy them some time, but it can’t overpower our movement toward justice,” he said at the time. 

Hertzberg again took aim at the industry Wednesday in a statement on SB 262. 

“Anyone who thought last year’s deceptive campaign by the money bail industry would stop California’s march toward a safer, more just system was gravely mistaken. Even the bail industry knows that cash bail is profoundly unconscionable,” he said. “Fundamental fairness and basic human decency demand we make decisions about who stays in jail on the facts of the case and the risk to the public, not the balance of someone’s bank account. This fight is only beginning, and we’re in it for the long haul.”

Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy for Dignity and Power Now and one of the leaders behind the No on 25 campaign, said Wednesday that he supports the basic principles behind the new bills, which as of Wednesday afternoon were not yet in print. But he is disappointed by the way lawmakers are framing the defeat of Proposition 25 as an effort led by the bail industry and not grassroots organizing. 

“Their egos are hurt by what happened, but them framing themselves as victims of big money is bullshit. They spent more money than the bail industry and for them to create the narrative that we were in the cahoots with the bail industry is wrong,” Steppling said, noting that his No on 25 campaign spent only $153,000, while the other side spent $15 million. Bail bond insurers also spent millions, but Steppling’s group did not take any industry money.

At the moment, Steppling’s coalition is putting together its own bail reform package with presumption of innocence as its guiding principle. While the language is still being refined, he says it will emphasize no risk assessments, pretrial services without the involvement of law enforcement, and of course, $0 bail.

Referring to SB 262 and AB 329, Steppling said, “This was a response to the fact that we’ve built a large statewide coalition to push comprehensive pretrial reform and they want to get out ahead of it.” 

Steppling said the new bills appear to be a step in the right direction, but will reserve judgment until he sees what else is in them. 

“We want good pretrial reform. What they’re presenting, it’s fine. It’s a small bite at the apple and a small step in the right direction. It will help keep people home,” he said.

“No matter what, we’re going to be working toward holistic pretrial reform. With or without them,” he added. “Hertzberg and Bonta reached out to us. They know the power we’ve built. We have a huge base of voters. It showed itself on a number of issues, including Prop 25.”

In an interview Wednesday, Bonta said he’d had some “positive initial conversations” with some of the community organizations that opposed Proposition 25, and they seemed most receptive to a proposal to refund the 10% fees collected by bail agents.

“SB 10 and Prop 25’s failure was not a warm embrace California-wide of the bail system. The No on Prop 25 folks never argued different from that. All they argued was that the replacement proposal in SB 10 had problems and that resonated with enough people, mostly in Los Angeles, to lead to defeat,” Bonta said. “There is unanimity that the money bail system is unfair unjust and unsafe.”

Bonta said the new legislation presents  “a very different approach to SB 10,” by proposing to fix some aspects of bail rather than suggesting a replacement of the whole system.

“This gets at some of the most egregious aspects of the money bail system and fixes them.”

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