New criminal justice reform focus: Harsh bail laws

The same coalition of Democratic lawmakers and interest groups that worked with Gov. Jerry Brown on Propositions 47 and 57 — which lessen the amount of time convicts must spend behind bars for relatively minor crimes and make it easier for convicts to gain parole, respectively — have a new target: the state’s harsh bail laws.

Brown has yet to sign on to the campaign led by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland. But given that Hertzberg and Bonta’s main arguments have echoes of the arguments made on behalf of Propositions 47 and 57, it may be just a matter of time.

They are highly critical of California’s bail laws, which require suspects to post an average bail of $50,000 — more than five times the national median — before they can be released. In a state with the nation’s highest rate of poverty, these rules are so punitive that they routinely ruin suspects’ lives, Hertzberg and Bonta contend. Unable to afford bail, suspects languish in local jails until their trials start, losing their jobs and their ability to take care of their families, who sometimes lose their housing as a result — even if the suspects are never convicted of crimes.

Hertzberg says he’s finding GOP support for his interest in lowering bail rates. Perhaps his best tool in swaying tough-on-crime Republicans is the evidence that states with much lower, less punitive bail amounts do not have any trouble getting criminal suspects to come to their trials. If California adopted reforms and “risk-assessment” evaluations of the sorts used in Kentucky and New Jersey, Golden State taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars.

A Public Policy Institute of California study backs up these theories. According to the PPIC, in 2014, 50,000 of the 80,000 people held daily in local jails in the state were there because they couldn’t make bail. A key PPIC conclusion: “California’s high rates of pretrial detention have not been associated with lower rates of failure to appear or lower levels of felony rearrests.”

Bail bond industry has fended off previous reform pushes

Given the heavy costs of incarceration, excessive and unnecessary bail would seem to have been low-hanging fruit both for criminal justice reformers and opponents of government waste during the budget wars seen during California’s revenue recession from 2008-2012. But the bail bond industry — with annual state revenue of $2 billion — has fought off reform with heavy lobbying, campaign donations and warnings of the risk to public safety if bail laws are weakened.

This could change in the 2017 session. “Now you have a whole host of groups on both sides of the aisle looking at the cost and fairness of the system,” Hertzberg told the Los Angeles Times.

There is also the possibility that changes in California bail laws could be demanded by state judges. The Equal Justice Under Law group is suing the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento over what the group calls unconstitutional bail policies that create two separate and unequal types of justice systems — a reasonable one for middle-income and wealthy families and a brutally harsh one for poor people.

At a state insurance commission hearing last month, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones praised Equal Justice Under Law for raising the issue.

“We shouldn’t have a system where your detention is based on your income. There are allegations that that’s the system we have,” Jones said, according to San Francisco TV station KPIX-5.


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  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 9 February, 2017, 11:06

    Um. This article ignores one very big giant FACT: people are arrested because they have committed a crime!

    If bail is set too high for the accused to pay, they can go to a bail bondsman and pay his fee, which is much less.

    The accused also has a choice to stop committing crimes. Criminal activity is a moral choice and everybody in the world has the freedom to choose not to commit crimes.

    No sympathy from me.

    And, as our laws become more and more lenient regarding the kind of crime that will result in an arrest, conviction and incarceration, it makes sense to me to keep bail up as high as possible.

    Reply this comment
  2. Anna
    Anna 9 February, 2017, 15:49

    Maybe you missed this part you internet troll…

    We shouldn’t have a system where your detention is based on your income. There are allegations that that’s the system we have,” Jones said

    Not everyone guilty and not everyone deserves the harsh bails received for a dang mistake or bad judgment on their part. You idiots wouldn’t understand, you know nothing about a 2nd chance. All you know is wasteful spending on these prisons…Excuse me but I pay taxes for this wasteful spending and I’m not happy. These high bails ruin lives to the max….make this change happen! Decent people deserve a second chance.

    Reply this comment
  3. Annonymous*
    Annonymous* 10 February, 2017, 23:50

    On the way in to California a sign reads “Welcome to California, come on vacation, leave on probation” one in three Californians have been connected the justice system. Most will say not my family. Your aunt, uncle, brother, sister, mom, dad, grand-ma, grand-pa, cousin, neighbor, co-worker, politician, or whatever…prop 47 is for non-violent offenders, re-sentencing. Additionally it robbing peter to pay paul →AB109, state commits doing county time. This is a prototype program, limited. Taking state money now local money. $175 million over previous 611 million. $786 this year. Double dipping, you should see the abuse of finances. How about that $15,000 electric car? YOU CAN ONLY DO ONE YEAR IN COUNTY JAIL…anything else is a crime at the inmates expense, promotes aggression, insanity, with the inability to provide any programs, a sham!

    Reply this comment
    • Arkansas
      Arkansas 28 December, 2018, 07:54

      Go on vacation leave on probation. Can’t get prop 47. from being out of state can’t get my gun rights back.what a joke. If this would happened in my state I would have already got the back

      Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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