Lower Bail Amounts Could Be Coming to a Jail Near You

Bail in the Valley
Bail in the Valley

Critics say bail in California is about money, not about ensuring that bad guys stay behind bars. The median bail amount in the Golden State is a whopping $50,000, meaning suspects have to come up with $5,000 bond no matter their guilt or innocence. That's five times the amount found in the rest of the country, according to a recent analysis. As a result, people with means, even if they're guilty as sin, can often check-write their way to freedom while average Californians stay put, lose jobs and see family members punished as a result.

Poorer arrestees also feel pressure to make deals with prosecutors and plead guilty to lesser crimes even if they haven't committed them. It's the only way to rapid freedom if they can't afford bail.

A new bill by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg of Van Nuys that seeks to upend this system was passed by the full Senate this week. The legislation, SB 10, has a companion proposal in the Assembly that could make for faster passage because both houses must approve the reform before Gov. Jerry Brown gets a chance to veto or sign the law. The Assembly legislation, AB 42, is being carried by Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland.

Passage is not a sure thing. A spokesman for Hertzberg says the Assembly, as it often does, presents more opposition. The bail industry is focusing its efforts against the reform there, he says. David Quintana, a lobbyist for the California Bail Agents Association, confirmed that strategy. He argues that the legislation would create huge costs for taxpayers as the state would need to pay for those assessments and for tracking bailed-out suspects, something bail bonds workers do now.

"The cost of what it would take to put this in place, operate it, and keep track of all the folks let out could be in the hundreds of millions," he says. "The risk assessment will take an entire bureaucracy to operate. And you are completely wiping out an entire industry — bail agents."

Hertzberg's bill wouldn't necessarily kill bail. But it would apply downward pressure on dollar amounts. For those accused of specific violent felonies, a risk assessment — including recommendations for the conditions under which release might be possible — would have to be prepared. If bail is a must, "The bill would require the court to set monetary bail at the least restrictive level necessary to assure the appearance of the defendant," according to Hertzberg's office.

Such a risk assessment is a part of the criminal court process in Santa Clara County, which has saved $60 million since 2013 by "supervising many defendants in the community" instead of jailing them at a cost of $215 per person per day. In Los Angeles, it costs about $116 a day to keep someone locked up, according to the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said in a statement that Hertzberg's legislation is a step toward leveling the playing field of justice in the Golden State.

"Currently California detains low-risk legally innocent people simply because they can’t afford to purchase their freedom, while allowing dangerous, wealthy defendants to return to the community before trial," she said. "This legislation will reduce the number of low-risk people who are unfairly and expensively jailed before trial only because they cannot afford bail, and give judges better tools to determine if defendants pose a threat to public safety before trial. These important steps will move the state’s pretrial system away from money bail and toward a system that we know is more effective."


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