California Supreme Court Rules Financial Status Must Be Considered for Bail

The California Supreme Court building in San Francisco. (Courthouse News photo / Maria Dinzeo)

(CN) — Trial courts across California may be required to consider a person’s ability to pay when setting bail after the state’s high court late Wednesday bolstered the landmark opinion in a case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s cash bail and pretrial detention system.

California’s First District Court of Appeal made waves in 2018 when it ruled that Kenneth Humphrey’s $350,000 bail was unconstitutional. 

The appellate court said a San Francisco judge failed to fully consider Humphrey’s financial resources and neglected to explore alternatives to money bail. 

Humphrey — whose initial bail was $600,000 after being accused of robbing his elderly neighbor and a $7 cologne bottle in 2017 — was granted a new bail hearing.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court made binding to trial courts part of the opinion barring judges from relying on bail schedules, which the high court said violates the due process rights of low-income people who are arrested for felonies in the state.

The published appellate court opinion had been stripped of its “binding or precedential effect” when the Supreme Court granted review of the case two years ago.

The Supreme Court’s action Wednesday reverses that effect.

Final resolution of the Humphrey case is pending.

In a letter to the California Supreme Court last week, Attorney General Xavier Becerra supported a motion by one of Humphrey’s attorneys asking that precedential effect be restored to the appellate court opinion. 

Becerra applauded the court’s ruling in a statement Thursday.

“In making bail determinations, trial courts across California must now take into account individual circumstances and the person’s ability to pay. Bottom line: this is a critical step forward for fairness in our bail system,” Becerra said, adding that he supports a system that weighs pretrial detention with a person’s ability to pay bail.

The court’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has previously voiced support for bail reform, saying in a 2017 report the current model “unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety” and that courts should instead comprehensively assess a person’s condition when setting bail.

“A pretrial system that relies exclusively on the financial resources of the accused is inherently unsafe and unfair,” the report said. “The primary goals of an effective pretrial release structure are to maintain public safety and to ensure that defendants appear in court while treating people fairly. However, use of a monetary bail system compromises public safety because release is not premised on the risk posed by a defendant.”

Pretrial data in the U.S. show 61% of the country’s inmates have not been convicted — and 64% of California’s inmates are awaiting arraignment, trial or sentencing.

California’s bail industry is working to upend bail reform efforts such as Senate Bill 10, a law passed in 2018 which replaces bail with a system based on risk assessments that gives judges broader authority over release.

To survive, the bill must contend with both a referendum to repeal it and the bail industry’s ballot initiative to grant constitutional protection for the right to bail through a bail bonds agent.

On Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his support for Proposition 25, a November ballot measure to enact SB 10, which was set to take effect Oct. 1, 2019.

A pretrial risk-assessment tool included in the bill weighs factors in a person’s background, including current charges, prior convictions and their court attendance records, which then determines a risk level based on those factors.

State Senator Bob Hertzberg, the Democrat who co-authored the bill, applauded Newsom’s support Tuesday and said in a statement the bail industry wants to obliterate SB 10.

“Californians will not be swayed by a for-profit industry spending millions of dollars to protect a system of money bail that takes away peoples’ liberty just because they don’t have enough money in their pocket,” Hertzberg said.

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