Opinion: Why bail reform will make California communities safer

Many California courts operate under the assumption that requiring offenders to pay bail keeps us safe and ensures they return for trial.

With over 30 years of policing experience, including as chief in East Palo Alto, I have learned firsthand that our bail system does not prioritize public safety.

A recent state appellate court ruling questions the constitutionality of our bail system and mandates that courts consider someone’s ability to pay before setting bail. The case concluded last week when Attorney General Xavier Becerra opted not to appeal the decision.

However, implementing the court’s direction statewide may be difficult. The court explicitly recognized that sustainable long-term change must come from the Legislature.

Fortunately, the Assembly can do just that this year. Senate Bill 10, already passed by the Senate, would replace our system of cash bail with one based primarily on community safety.

Today, when someone is charged with a crime, the court sets bail according to preset amounts based on the offense committed. Some people can afford to pay bail while others cannot. Ultimately, wealth determines whether we release someone from custody.

The result: A system that threatens public safety by allowing too many violent and high-risk individuals back on our streets. In California, 76 percent of released serious offenders get out by posting bail. Worse still, most people who post bail are never subject to any form of monitoring after returning to the community.

This system also keeps too many people overall behind bars, with little public safety justification. A recent judicial workgroup found that county jails hold as many as 28,000 people because they cannot afford to post bail.

This is unsurprising given that the median bail in California is $50,000 – five times the national average. While we should detain some of these offenders to protect the public, many low-risk individuals could safely return to work, their homes and their families while they resolve their cases.

Jailing less serious offenders threatens public safety as well. Study after study has found that jailing low-level offenders before trial makes them more likely to reoffend and less likely to appear in court in the future. This is not surprising considering even a short pretrial detention can be incredibly destabilizing, putting people at risk for losing their jobs or housing.

The Assembly can address the inefficiencies and inequities of our bail system by passing SB 10. If passed, it would ensure that judges make pretrial release decisions based on the risk the individual poses to public safety and whether he or she will return to court.

SB 10 would give judges data-driven tools to determine risk and more options for monitoring released offenders when necessary. Importantly, courts would process and release low-risk offenders quickly so they do not needlessly fill our jails.

Many California counties have already successfully taken steps to eliminate money bail. Santa Clara County, for example, implemented a system similar to SB 10 in 2011 and increased the number of people it released before trial from 900 to 1,400 a month. Despite the increase, 95 percent of those released returned for all court dates and 99 percent remained arrest-free.

Keeping a defendant in jail before trial is often necessary to protect public safety. Passing this law would not change that. In fact, SB 10 explicitly allows judges to hold defendants without bail when their release would jeopardize public safety.

Passing SB 10 would make our state safer and our criminal justice system fairer. I urge the Assembly to swiftly pass it.

Ron Davis is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the former police chief in East Palo Alto.

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