L.A. County Considers Letting More Arrestees Go Free

Freedom is not free.
Freedom is not free.

It costs the taxpayers of L.A. County $177 a day to keep someone in the "largest and most costly local jail system in the United States," according to a motion by county supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis. About half the people in those cells are presumed innocent and awaiting trial, and according to Sheriff Jim McDonnell, most in that group can't afford bail.

County government is limited in what it can do to change a state-regulated system that clearly favors arrestees of means. But Kuehl and Solis have proposed one arguably surefire way to make the bail system more equitable: Beef up pretrial release programs. The county Board of Supervisors yesterday approved the motion to explore expanding pretrial release, which would release more suspects from jail.

Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, explains that the county doesn't have the jurisdiction to force judges to use pretrial release programs. But he points to experts who say that when a judge has more definitive, objective information about a suspect, he or she is more likely to free the arrestee pending trial.

"The county is saying, 'We want to have a pretrial services agency whereby everyone booked will get a risk-assessment score,'" he says "If the judges have that information they might be more inclined to ... release this person."

Currently, L.A. County only provides pretrial risk assessment for about one in four people booked into the system, according to the supervisors' motion. The proposal would greatly expand risk assessment, which Eliasberg says is "the most effective thing you can do" to ensure that someone who is released will show up for court — more effective than posting bond or bail.

A 2011 analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice concluded that "most detention decisions" in the county were "not based on an informed assessment of whether an individual poses a danger to society or is likely to return to court. Instead, the decision is based on whether the arrestee has enough money to meet bail."

The proposal by Kuehl and Solis is a step toward fixing that. It also could beef up automated phone calls to suspects to let them know a court date is imminent. The motion asks the county CEO, District Attorney's Office and other officials to propose best practices for reducing the number of pretrial inmates behind bars.

The proposal is similar to legislation at state and national levels that seeks to address the injustice of bail. State Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland late last year proposed the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, which aims to "safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system," according to draft language.

Yesterday U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu revealed his own federal proposal, the No Money Bail Act of 2017, which also intends to "eliminate the use of money bail," according to a statement from his office.

"We cannot be a nation that believes in freedom and equal justice under the law yet at the same time locks up thousands of people solely because they cannot afford bail," Lieu said in a statement. "We cannot be a nation that believes in the principle of innocent until proven guilty yet incarcerates over 450,000 Americans who have not been convicted of any crime."


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