Judicial Council OKs $68M for Pretrial-Release Pilot Program

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, flanked by Judicial Staff Director Martin Hoshino (L) and Justice Ming Chin (R) at the Judicial Council meeting on Aug. 9, 2019. (Judicial Council of California)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Judicial Council of California approved $68 million Friday to fund pilot projects in 16 trial courts aimed at releasing more arrestees from jail while they await trial.

Legislation dismantling the for-profit bail system in California is currently on hold pending a repeal referendum next November. The courts, which will shoulder the burden of pretrial reform, are preparing for an alternative system that emphasizes both public safety and monitored release that is not based on a person’s ability to pay.

Fourth Appellate District Justice Marsha Slough, who chairs the Pretrial Reform and Operations Workgroup created by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in January, said the move is far from perfect but will lead to a more equitable criminal justice system.

“I have no doubt that there are people, there are naysayers that are looking and waiting for that very first release decision gone wrong,” she said. “We also know of people who are losing their jobs and losing their homes and sometimes losing their family simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.”

It wasn’t easy for the workgroup to winnow down the list of 31 applicant courts. Slough said the tremendous amount of interest was sobering.

Fourth Appellate District Justice Marsha Slough. (Judicial Council of California)

The pot of available money promised by the Legislature this year is $75 million, and the workgroup received funding requests totaling $106 million from large courts alone, Slough said.

Some projects are already up and running and requested funding to expand. Others are starting from scratch.

The courts selected are in Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Tulare, Ventura, Kings, Napa, Sierra, Yuba, Nevada-Sierra, Tuolumne, Modoc and Calaveras counties.

San Joaquin County’s current pretrial program was selected as one of the 16, though it didn’t request any funding.

“That is because they have a good robust program up and running.  But they also felt like it had room for improvement and they could learn from what we are doing and they felt that the data exchange piece was really important,” Slough said.

The funding from the Legislature comes with some conditions. The courts must increase the number of detainees released before trial, using the least restrictive monitoring tools necessary to keep the public safe while ensuring defendants make their court dates.

All of the courts plan to use risk-assessment tools, as required by the Legislature, and will be keeping data on any bias based on race, ethnicity and gender in pretrial decision making.

Since bail is part of existing law, it is still available as an option.

Council staff member Shelley Curran, who directs the Criminal Justice Services division, said the courts will also collect data on failure-to-appear rates, re-arrest rates, and the effectiveness of court date reminder systems.

“We get reminders for haircuts and restaurants or the dentist, so it’s one of the things we know that works in the pretrial arena,” she said.

David Mauroff, CEO of the nonprofit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, spoke during the council’s public comment period. Founded by the San Francisco Bar Association and municipal court judges in 1976, SF Pretrial is considered one of the most successful long-running pretrial projects in the state but faces elimination as an unexpected consequence of last year’s bail reform legislation.

His program already conducts pretrial risk assessments for San Francisco apart from law enforcement, but Senate Bill 10 requires counties to create pretrial programs within court probation departments. San Francisco Superior Court’s probation department plans to take over pretrial services in the city and was one of the 31 courts that applied for funding. Mauroff said this was done without consulting SF Pretrial or any of its justice partners.

Mauroff said he was relieved the San Francisco court did not make the cut, because that gives his program at better shot at preservation.

“For now, we’re saved. It’s a deep sigh of relief. But you never know when the next hurdle is going to come,” he said after the vote. “We were there to support the recommendations and our understanding is even though the recommendations were made, there were still opportunities to change them and we wanted to make sure our voice was heard.”

His group plans to continue working with legislators to carve out an exemption to the constraints of SB 10.  “There’s still work to be done,” he said.

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