Law Reforming California's Bail System Is In Limbo

Doug Sovern
January 17, 2019 - 5:34 pm

The elimination of cash bail was supposed to be a dream come true for advocates of criminal justice reform. 

Last summer, then Governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 10 to ban the cash bail system and change how judges determined an inmate's pre-trial fate. 

But thanks to the efforts of the bail bond industry, the law will not go into effect as planned this October.

The American Bail Coalition, led by Jeff Clayton, secured enough signatures to let voters decide the law's future in a referendum on the November 2020 ballot. 

Clayton's group needed to gather 365,000 valid signatures, and not only met but exceeded the requirement by more than 200,000.

“It’s not just to save jobs for the bail industry,” Clayton insisted. “It’s more to prevent a system of preventative detention and denying the right to bail in California. We think that’s going to lead to more jails in California, rather than less.”

Reform advocates point out that the money bail system treats the wealthy differently, potentially setting free dangerous criminals who have the money for bail, while those accused of even low-level, non-violent crimes languish in prison for lack of funds.

Under the bill, written by East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta, judges would have more latitude to determine when a prisoner could be released.

“It will be based on an individual’s full set of circumstances, their risk to the public, their risk of flight,” Bonta told KCBS Radio. “And that’s the right thing to do, that’s the better thing to do.”

Bonta's bill had strong support from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Sen. Kamala Harris, who has introduced a similar bill at the federal level.

“Whether someone is detained before trial should be determined by whether they’re a risk to their community and society, not whether they’re rich,” said Harris.

But the cash bail ban was fiercely opposed by the bail bond industry, who feared the loss of many thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue, as well as many law enforcement leaders.

Perhaps surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union, joined the opposition to the cash bail ban, saying the new law gives judges too much power. 

“Rather than just set bail, and let the system play itself out, they’re actually going to detain a huge number of people in jail with no bail,” said Clayton. “Prosecutors, under this law, can detain anyone they want for up to eight days, with really little explanation other than filing a motion and accusing somebody of being dangerous.”

The referendum leaves the law in limbo until voters have their say next year.

Written by Jordan Bowen.