California Voters to Decide Fate of Money Bail System

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Facing extinction after lawmakers set wheels in motion to outlaw the practice in 2018, the bail industry has qualified a referendum that will ask voters whether to scrap or restore California’s money bail system.

State voting officials said late Wednesday that a group seeking to overturn a recent landmark criminal justice reform bill has collected more than the required 365,000 valid signatures to land its referendum on the November 2020 ballot. The announcement means that Senate Bill 10, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this past August, won’t go into effect until after voters have their say.

The law, which was set to take effect Oct. 1, 2019, abolishes the traditional money bail system and gives judges more discretion over pretrial detainees. It tasks courts with implementing guidelines that rank a defendant’s public safety risk and allows judges to decide whether they should be jailed or released without bail before trial. Individuals deemed high public safety risks are not supposed to be eligible for pretrial release.

Proponents say the switch will end a for-profit system that often results in people who can’t afford bail being locked up for minor crimes for months or years until trial.   

The bill by State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, was backed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who called the money bail system “outdated, unsafe and unfair.”  

The bail industry believes the switch could allow violent offenders to skip out on their trial dates without the risk of defaulting on their bonds, and would eliminate thousands of jobs. The American Civil Liberties Union also withdrew support for the bill last year, saying the reforms were flawed and didn’t “sufficiently address racial bias in pretrial decision-making.”

Bonta and Hertzberg stood by their bill on Thursday, calling the referendum a desperate attempt by the bail industry to “protect an antiquated, ineffective scheme.”

“SB 10 was supported by all three branches of government, reform advocates, public safety officers and workers. I am confident it will be the law of the land,” Hertzberg said in an email.

California’s bid to curtail the practice of money bail came as several other jurisdictions, including Dallas, Galveston and Harris counties in Texas and New Hampshire, Alaska, Maryland, New Jersey and New Orleans face legal challenges to end the practice.

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