SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Calling the state’s cash bail system unsafe and unfair, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye released a report Tuesday she hopes will help shape the future of pretrial detention in California.
“I support the conclusion that California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety and agree with the recommendation to replace our current system of money bail with one based on a defendant’s risk to the public,” the chief justice said in a statement. “This report should serve as a framework as we work with the governor and the Legislature to address these issues that are central to our values and responsibilities of providing fair and equal access to justice for all Californians.”
The report on California’s bail system is the work of a head clerk and 11 judges from trial courts up and down the state, who recommended courts begin to use assessment tools to determine whether a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to public safety instead hitting them with a money bond which they say could let a potentially dangerous defendant buy his freedom.
National pretrial trends show 61 percent of the country’s inmates have not been convicted – and 64 percent of California’s inmates are awaiting arraignment, trial or sentencing, according to the report.
“A pretrial system that relies exclusively on the financial resources of the accused is inherently unsafe and unfair,” the judges wrote. “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.
“Rather, use of monetary bail secures the release of the accused without consideration of whether that release poses a danger to the community – thereby allowing potentially dangerous defendants to purchase their release.”
They added, “Once a bond is purchased and posted with the court, few if any conditions of release are imposed on a defendant, who has little to no accountability to the court for pretrial behavior. At the same time, many defendants with limited resources remain in jail because they cannot post bail. In posting bail to gain pretrial release, individuals and their families are often unnecessarily saddled with significant long-term debt regardless of the outcome of the case.”
A risk-assessment tool weighs factors in pretrial detainees’ background, including the current charge(s), prior convictions and a history of failure to appear in court, and then assigns the defendant a risk level based on those factors.
Additionally, the judges think every court in the state should have pretrial services staff to supervise released defendants and gather information about new arrestees to help judges determine their restrictions. Judges should also consider victims’ rights when determining conditions for release, and issue protective orders or exclusion zones when appropriate.
"Thousands of Californians who pose no risk to the public are held in jail before trial, while others charged with serious or violent offenses may pose a high risk and can buy their freedom simply by bailing out,” Ventura County Judge Brian Back, the work group’s chairman, said in a statement. “We think our recommendations, if followed, will help keep Californians safer and preserve scarce jail resources while providing new tools to monitor those released before trial.”