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SACRAMENTO — A sweeping proposal to overhaul the bail system throughout California will not get a vote in the Legislature’s final weeks, its authors announced Friday. But there’s good news for those seeking bail reform:
It now has the force of Gov. Jerry Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye behind it.
The governor and chief justice will craft a plan this fall with the proposal’s co-authors, Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, “to ensure the final plan is pragmatic, workable and enduring,” according to a news release from Hertzberg’s office. The two lawmakers said the proposal will be taken up early next year.
“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 in a statement.
California is one of at least a half-dozen states taking a hard look at a system which civil rights advocates say penalizes the poor for being poor and contributes to jail overcrowding. Cantil-Sakauye has publicly expressed concern about California’s bail system and last fall created a panel to study the matter and recommend changes. And a bipartisan bill introduced last month by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, would send up to $30 million in grant money to states engaged in reforms.
Santa Clara County, which is at the forefront of the issue in California, moved last fall to help inmates make bail or otherwise be released from jail. Some defendants are supervised by community organizations such as Silicon Valley De-Bug, which advocates for criminal-justice reforms. Washington, D.C., has long had an alternative in place, and New Jersey overhauled its system this year.
Last December, Hertzberg and Bonta introduced twin resolutions, one in each house, that would end the traditional bail system as we know it, relying instead on “pretrial assessments” to determine if a defendant is a danger to society or a flight risk. Under the current system, pre-trial detainees remain behind bars unless they can pay the full bail amount to the court — typically, $50,000, which would be refundable — or 10 percent of that amount, which is not refundable, to a bail agent.
“It’s literally a price list for freedom. If you’ve got the money, you get freedom,” Hertzberg said in an interview Friday. “The Constitution guarantees bail. But what is bail? Bail was intended to make sure you stayed free but showed up in court. It wasn’t meant to keep you in jail.”
But the bail industry and its insurance underwriters came out in force against the proposed change, calling it extreme and issuing dire warnings about public safety. The state Assembly voted down Bonta’s bill, AB 42, this past spring, and it was unclear if the new amendments to Hertzberg’s legislation would be enough to sway those on the fence. The bill had been relegated to the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s “suspense file.”
The California Bail Agents Association has conceded that the status quo is inequitable. But instead of doing away with the bail system, it is proposing a standard, statewide bail schedule — currently, the amounts can vary dramatically by county — that is more affordable.
“It does no good to us if people can’t afford to pay bail,” said David Quintana, a lobbyist for the association.
Another sticking point that the bill’s authors, Brown and Cantil-Sakauye will almost certainly grapple with this fall is the cost of the reform.
The state has yet to release a cost estimate, but the bail association contends that it will be astronomically high.
Brown has championed complex criminal-justice initiatives in recent years, and his involvement could be vital to pushing the bail legislation through the state Assembly, which rejected one of two identical bail bills in the spring. This year alone, the governor has helped to forge tough compromises on climate change and transportation funding, securing hard-fought legislative victories.
“The governor rarely gets involved in bills, but when he does it makes a huge difference,” said Natasha Minsker, who directs the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy & Policy. The ACLU of California is sponsoring both bills.
On Monday, the hip-hop artist Common gave a free concert in Sacramento and promoted a package of criminal justice reform bills, including changes to the bail system. Meanwhile, Hertzberg said, he grappled with whether to try to pass his bill this year — he believes he could have done it — and send it to the governor, who might have balked at the cost question.
But Hertzberg said he is glad Brown is involved.
“He always keeps you on your toes, you know,” he said. “I like his engagement because he’s a thoughtful guy, and I think he will make the bill better.”