Chief justice continues bail reform push

Seven months after her office released sweeping recommendations for reform of California’s bail system, state Supreme Court Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye may have a chance to force changes without going through the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Last week, the state Supreme Court agreed to take up a January appellate court ruling that took dead aim at a bail system that some say turns county jails into “debtor prisons.” More than half of jail inmates are there not because of convictions but because they can’t raise bail, which usually requires providing a bail bonds office with cash or property worth 10 percent of the total bail sum. California has the highest cash bail rates of any state, according to Human Rights Watch.

“A defendant may not be imprisoned solely due to poverty,” Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in a 3-0 decision of the 1st District Court of Appeal that ordered a new bail hearing for Kenneth Humphrey, a retired maintenance worker living in San Francisco who was accused of threatening a neighbor, stealing a bottle of cologne and $5, and demanding more money. Humphrey said he was seeking payment of a debt. But a judge followed a standard bail schedule that took note of Humphrey’s previous felony convictions and set his bail at $600,000, which was later reduced to $350,000.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case, which he had requested after state Attorney General Xavier Becerra chose not to appeal the appellate ruling. “We’re pleased,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’ve made it very clear that I’m not a proponent of money bail. But getting rid of money bail doesn’t entail that we will never have pretrial detention. There are still some people that are going to be either a flight risk or dangerous, and what we have now is a state of the law that is unclear, and the standard in terms of dangerousness may be way too high.”

Cantil-Sakauye urged bail changes in 2016 speech

While the appellate ruling was stayed pending the state high court’s ruling, criminal justice reformers were hopeful that Cantil-Sakauye’s history hints at the court’s eventual decision.

The chief justice conveyed her support for bail reform in her 2016 State of the Judiciary speech. A task force she convened issued a report in October that said the state’s system “unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety because it bases a person’s liberty on financial resources rather than the likelihood of future criminal behavior” and was “unsafe and unfair.” It called for pretrial assessments that would help judges gauge the risk posed by each defendant and for “pretrial programs [that] would also give judges more tools to supervise defendants, such as drug testing, home confinement, and text reminders for court dates.”

This approach was used with Humphrey, 64, after the appellate court ruling overturned his $350,000 bail. He was released from jail after agreeing to supervised around-the-clock detention at a substance abuse facility and to wearing an ankle monitor.

Despite lobbying from Cantil-Sakauye, Gov. Jerry Brown and progressive and civil rights groups, the Legislature has so far been mostly cool to two years of efforts led by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, to scrap the state’s money bail system. Their legislative proposals mirror the recommendations of the chief justice’s task force. One version passed the state Senate last year on a party-line vote before stalling; another was rejected by the Assembly.

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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