Push for Bail Reform in California Finds Big-Name Allies

(CN) – Bail reform will have to wait a little longer in California, as a bill to effectively eliminate cash bail will be revisited in the Legislature next year.

But for the bill’s authors, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles and Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda, the delay isn’t a setback. The Democratic lawmakers said Friday they’ve gained critical allies in Gov. Jerry Brown and the Judicial Council, the body tasked with helping courts carry out changes in the statute.

In a joint statement Friday, Brown and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said they were committed to working with lawmakers on a major bail overhaul in California.

“I believe that inequities exist in California’s bail system and I look forward to working this fall on ways to reform the system in a cost-effective and fair manner, considering public safety as well as the rights of the accused,” Brown said. Cantil-Sakauye said she looked forward to sharing the results of a bail reform working group she convened late last year with the Legislature “as we work together to improve our bail system.”

The bill, SB 10, made it through the state Senate but failed to secure enough votes to pass the Assembly before the mid-September deadline.

In a statement, Hertzberg touted the partnership with Brown and the judiciary.

“Bail reform in California is imminent. Today we have joined with our governor and chief justice to seek a justice system that is fairer to all Californians. When bail reform has succeeded in other states, this collaboration has been the path and we are on it now together,” he said.

“This year we had a path to success on SB 10 and our collaboration will lead to a better outcome. We also exposed the failures of the bail system and the insurance companies that support it, and we plan to continue to investigate that. Our three branches of government will work with stakeholders to get SB 10 passed early next year.”

SB 10 plans to replace money bail with pretrial risk assessments that will allow most detainees to fight their legal battles from home, rather than a jail cell. Several states have already adopted similar plans, including the District of Columbia, Kentucky and New Jersey.

There were a number of factors for putting the bill on hold until next year, including public safety, losses to the bail industry, and the financial cost of implementing such sweeping, ambitious reforms. One change Hertzberg unveiled this week was a two-year plan for enactment.

While the Judicial Council was not opposed to SB 10, it did send a letter to the Assembly’s public safety committee in June outlining its concerns – chiefly the unrealistic timelines it would impose on the courts to gather information about each defendant so that judges can make a decision as to that person’s risk to public safety.

“The bill provides for release on bail in a manner that places judges in the untenable position of being required to release on bail defendants who are at high risk of failure to appear or of danger to public safety,” the letter said. “Further, the bill appears to limit the court’s ability to consider the appropriateness of preventative detention in cases where the defendant has a history of violent offenses but has a current offense for which preventative detention is not statutorily permitted.”

The council did agree the bail system needs to be changed, and that evidence-based risk assessment, setting conditions for release and preventative detention would address public safety worries.

The judges’ group Alliance of California Judges sent its own letter to Hertzberg earlier this month, saying, “We know that our current bail system needs reform. But the proposals contained in this bill are simply too drastic, and the effects on public safety and court congestion could be catastrophic.”

Hertzberg’s spokesman Andrew LaMar said the announcement by Cantil-Sakauye and Brown on Friday is “further proof that they’re committed to finding the best kind of bail reform plan that can be executed.”

He added, “The relief is everyone is committed to getting together this fall and figuring out how to finish this right and get it passed early next June.”

Pointing to the Judicial Council’s letter, he said, “They listed a lot of concerns and things they wanted changed but they said, ‘We endorse bail reform. We know there’s a problem and we support the direction you’re going.’”

LaMar said Brown and his staff have been well aware of legislative efforts behind bail reform, and isn’t surprised that he’s gotten on board.

“From day one he’s been pushing all sorts of elements of criminal justice reform, so it certainly was not a surprise to us that bail reform was in his wheelhouse and that he endorses the concept,” LaMar said. “We appreciate that he was willing to step up and be actively involved in crafting the legislation.”

For San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, change can’t come soon enough.

“We’re the only country in the world other than the Philippines that allows an industry to profit off of keeping people in jail,” he said. “We know from all of the studies that pretrial assessment tools are better at predicting risk than bail. Bail reform is something we need desperately because we can’t continue to over-incarcerate Americans based on the idea that only those with money should be entitled to release.”

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