Lawmakers and the governor are discussing legislation that could dramatically affect the California criminal justice system, potentially changing the entire pretrial process.
Supporters say it’s needed to reform the bail system and keeping people in jail before their trial should be the exception, not the rule. Opponents say it’s nothing more than a "get out of jail free" card.
City of San Diego's former police chief William Lansdowne said California’s monetary bail system is broken, with too many spending too much time behind bars.
“Many of these people are absolutely no risk,” he said. “We are destroying families right now. Commit a crime, low level, non-violent, non-serious crime, they end up in jail and lose their job.”
Monica Montgomery with the ACLU said she agrees. According to her, 60 percent of prisoners in California jails are awaiting trial.
“It's like having a two tiered justice system,” she said. “One for the rich and one for the poor.”
Under the current bail system in California, when a person is arrested, bail is set according to a fee schedule, depending on the crime. Offenders either pay the bail up front or a 10% down payment to a bond company before they are released.
California State Senator Robert Hertzberg helped author Senate Bill 10, which would change the California bail system. He said the median bail rate in California is $50,000, five times the national average.
“If you write a check for this much money, you are free,” he said. It’s “not based upon your risk but the size of your wallet. “What I am saying in this bill, you should be individually assessed are you a threat or not.”
Instead of an individual remaining behind bars due to lack of funds, Lansdowne said the bill would create a risk assessment system based on an algorithm.
It “looks at their history, prior criminal contacts and makes a decision,” he said.
The bill was set to be voted on this session but late last week the governor’s office, the state courts and the bills authors, Senator Hertzberg and Assemblyman Rob Bonta agreed in principle that reform is needed. Supporters say this is unprecedented and means bail reform in California is not a matter of “if” but “when.”
The plan is to tweak the legislation and have it ready to vote on in the second year of the current two-year legislative session.
At the federal level, a similar bipartisan proposal has been introduced by California Senator Kamala Harris and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Kentucky already has a state risk assessment model in place.
Former legislator and retired San Diego Superior Court Judge Larry Stirling said he sees the proposal differently.
“This is an absurd, an absurd idea,” he said. “The notion that public safety will be improved by releasing thousands of people based on a computer system is just crazy.”
With the current system, Stirling said public safety is the number one consideration in setting bail. Those in jail, he said, belong in jail.
“They are in jail because they are a danger to the community, no other reason,” he said.
Montgomery said she disagrees.
“It will create a system that shifts from a wealth based system to case by case determination,” she said.
Wendy Zamutt, a 21-year-veteran in the bail industry, said she opposes the proposal. She said she worries the changes would lead to more dangerous people on the streets, making the job tougher for police.
The “San Diego Police Department is understaffed 250 officers,” she said. “If SB10 were to pass, they would be undermined.”
Click here to read a letter sent to Hertzberg from an alliance that opposes the legislation.
Hertzberg said similar systems are working in different regions across the United States.
“Forty-two counties have some form of risk assessment tools,” he said. “They are wildly effective.”