Bail reform on track for California, with an early assist from Santa Clara County

Bail reform is the kind of revolutionary idea people often associated with the Left Coast, but not this time. States like New Jersey and Kentucky are way ahead of California on experiments to help ensure that people’s lives aren’t ruined by an arrest — not a conviction — for a non-violent crime, as routinely happens now.

Santa Clara County is jump starting the reform movement in this state. Last week the Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious plan to help suspects in nonviolent crimes stay out of jail — keeping their jobs, supporting their families — while awaiting court action. People of means can do this by just writing a check, knowing they’ll get the full amount back when they show up for court.

The Legislature dropped this year’s state bail reform proposals in August, when Gov. Jerry Brown promised to make reform a priority next year. With his support, and the advocacy of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, momentum suddenly feels strong.

The aim is not just the obvious one — equal justice — but also improved public safety and lower public costs.

Today bail is imposed based on the crime, without regard for the suspect’s ability to pay. Low-income residents have two choices: go to a bail bond company that charges 10 percent of the bail amount — money that is never returned — or sit in jail, sometimes for more than a year, until the case is resolved.

People never convicted of a crime have lost their jobs, their homes, their families because they couldn’t make bail. Many on the edge of solvency who choose the bail bond route end up financially ruined.

Personal stories of bail system victims are heartbreaking. What we don’t hear as often are stories of people who went to jail because they’re poor and, after lengthy incarceration, became absorbed into a criminal culture they never would have adopted otherwise. In Santa Clara County, keeping people in jail costs $200 a day — particularly galling if the charges  are dropped.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez began championing bail reform several years ago, setting up a task force of criminal justice and community representatives to work on solutions.

The plan adopted this month has some ambitious elements. They include finding an organization to manage a revolving fund from private sources to help poor people make bail;  and recruiting a nonprofit to help ensure suspects show up for court. These will take time to establish.

Quicker remedies can involve setting bail with consideration of income or using ankle monitors or other techniques to keep suspects under observation.

U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Rand Paul of Kentucky became the odd couple of bail reform sponsors on the national front this year. The Trump  administration is unlikely to be sympathetic. But California needs to act next year. And Santa Clara County is showing the way.

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