California could be the next state to get rid of bail. Last week, the state’s Pretrial Detention Reform Workgroup released a report recommending that a risk-based assessment tool replace the current bail system. Santa Barbara retired judge George Eskin, who served on the 12-member committee, said the effort is an important part of criminal justice reform in the state.
Currently, Santa Barbara County judges set the bail amount for defendants based on the schedule that the judges adopt every year. Judges have considerable discretion: They can significantly increase the amount or they can release defendants on their own recognizance, or no bail.
Bail is essentially a bond sold to defendants by bail bondspersons. It is forfeited should the person not show up to court. The bondsperson charges a certain percentage of the bond amount as a fee. “It’s not fair,” Eskin said. Two people who are charged with the same crime but have different economic backgrounds could have very different experiences in the criminal justice system, he explained. The person who cannot afford bail sits in jail while a more affluent defendant can be released almost immediately. This also can pressure low-income defendants to plea to charges just so they can get out of jail.
Currently, about 70 percent of inmates in County Jail are awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything, though some may have priors. “A mere fact that a person can post a lot of money does not reduce the risk [of them fleeing or reoffending],” he said.
The report also called for California’s 58 counties to establish pretrial services departments, adopt pretrial assessment tools, and incorporate victim rights, among other things. “Locally this is where we have been going for several years,” said Darrel Parker, CEO of the county’s Superior Court. Santa Barbara County has a pretrial services department and has adopted a risk assessment tool, which objectively rates defendants on their probability to be a flight risk or to reoffend.
State Senator Bob Hertzberg (D–Van Nuys) authored legislation to overhaul the monetary bail system, and Governor Jerry Brown has expressed interest in taking on the issue in his last year in office. Eskin expressed confidence that the judicial, legislative, and executive branches working together “should be able to come up with something.”