California’s Bail System Is About Money, Not Justice, Report Finds

California has a bail problem.

A new report from the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute took a look at how the Golden State deals with presumed-innocents thrown in jail and gives the state a grade of D. The state has a high rate of putting folks behind bars before they’re tried, and it rarely uses “pretrial assessment” to determine of suspects could go free without bail.

California’s grade “is commiserate with the rest of the country,” which also got a D average, says Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the institute. “Two-thirds of the U.S. jail population has not yet been to trial and only 1 in 4 Americans lives in a jurisdiction that uses a validated evidence-based pretrial assessment meant to guide discretion and reduce bias,” according to a summary of the report’s findings.

The state’s rate of putting people behind bars before they’re determined to be guilty is 11.7 per 10,000 residents, a relatively high proportion, according to the report. “We used three measures,” Burdeen says. “The rate of pretrial detention, the percent of counties using validated pretrial assessment tool, and functionally eliminating money bond.”

California pretty much failed on all three, although there are counties, such as Santa Clara, using pretrial assessment. The group Bail Reform California said the report lays out the case for eliminating or limiting money bail, which simply lets suspects go free based on their ability to pay,not on whether or not they’re a threat to society.

“This national report issued by the Pretrial Justice Institute presents yet another case for a fairer and safer bail system,” according to an email statement. “If there is one ray of sunshine in the otherwise abysmal state of pretrial justice in California it’s that the report cites California as a ‘state to watch’ given that all three branches of the state’s government have committed to moving forward to reform bail and improve pretrial services.”

Indeed, California is actively working on it. “Progress is possible,” Burdeen says.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland authored a bail reform bill that’s active in the legislature. Among other things it would enact pretrial assessments to “ensure that those who are not a threat to public safety or at risk of fleeing are not held simply for their inability to afford bail,” according to a statement from Hertzberg’s office.

Last month, a working group led by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye concluded that California’s money bail system is “unsafe and unfair. “California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety,” the justice said in a statement.

She said she agrees with the group’s “recommendation to replace our current system of money bail with one based on a defendant’s risk to the public.”

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