California Is the First State to Scrap Cash Bail

SAN FRANCISCO — California on Tuesday became the first state to fully abolish cash bail, a step that backers said would create a more equitable criminal justice system, one less dependent on a person’s wealth.

“Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the California Money Bail Reform Act into law on Tuesday.

The driving principle of the law is that a suspect will be evaluated on the basis of risk to public safety and the likelihood of not appearing in court, rather than on his or her ability to post a certain bail amount. Those evaluations would help determine if the suspect would be held while awaiting trial or released.

The California law is part of a wave of criminal justice reforms taking place across the country. A number of states, including New Jersey, New Mexico and Kentucky, have sharply curtailed their cash bail system, but California is the first to completely dismantle it.

“This is a transformative day for our justice system,” said Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of California and a main backer of the legislation, in a statement. “Our old system of money bail was outdated, unsafe and unfair.”

She called the new law “a fair and just solution for all Californians.”

But the law, which will take effect in October 2019, was criticized by some as giving the courts too much power.

“The bill gives a lot of power to the courts, which may be used in ways that raise concerns,” said Natasha Minsker, an advocate in the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the law. Ms. Minsker also said the law “lacks protections against racial bias.”

The details of how individuals will be assessed has been left for California’s judiciary to work out. And some legislators said the state was moving too fast on a very complex issue. The bill passed the State Assembly last week by a 41-27 vote.

The law relies on the state’s Judicial Council, a body that sets the rules for California’s courts, to create the new system of pretrial assessments. Suspects will be classified into “low risk,” “medium risk” and “high risk” by Pretrial Assessment Services, which already exist in some California counties but which will be somewhat standardized by the law.

The law allows courts to detain a suspect “if there is a substantial likelihood that no condition or combination of conditions of pretrial supervision will reasonably assure public safety or the appearance of the person in court.”

Even social justice organizations that are united in their criticism of the current system, and the bail bond industry that has developed around it, were divided over the new law, with some claiming it could lead to more people behind bars.

The Essie Justice Group, a California organization formed by women with relatives and loved ones in prison, lobbied against the new law, saying it could lead to “more and disproportionate incarceration of black, brown and low-income people.”

The new law gives too much discretion to prosecutors, who could call for preventive detention for a broad range of crimes, the group argued. “This is incarceration without any due process,” Essie Justice said in a statement.

California had already taken steps earlier in the year to mitigate the effect of cash bail on the indigent. In January, a California Court of Appeal criticized the practice of setting bail above what defendants can pay, ruling that a defendant “may not be imprisoned solely due to poverty.”

The ruling came in a case involving Kenneth Humphrey, 64, who spent almost a year in jail, unable to afford his $350,000 bail, after he stole $5 and a bottle of cologne from a 79-year-old disabled man. Mr. Humphrey, who has a history of substance abuse and multiple prior felony convictions, had followed the man into his apartment in San Francisco and threatened to put a pillow case over his head, demanding money. He was released in May, pending trial.

Jeff Adachi, the public defender in San Francisco, said that under the new law, there would be a “presumption against release” for that type of offense. “Mr. Humphrey would probably not have gotten out under this new law,” Mr. Adachi said.

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