SF releases more inmates ahead of trial after landmark bail reform decision

Some inmates who would likely have never walked free from County Jail before trial are now being released under supervision after a landmark court ruling reshaped the bail system in California, San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said Thursday.

Hennessy said defendants charged with crimes as serious as kidnapping and rape were among the 791 people out of jail on pretrial release on an average day in the first three months of 2018 — 284 more a day on average than in the first quarter of 2017. And those numbers only account for defendants facing felonies.

The heightened number of defendants out of jail before trial has prompted Hennessy to request $1.7 million to fund 15 new positions within the Pretrial Diversion Project. The nonprofit group uses a Public Safety Assessment tool to evaluate inmates for release before trial and monitors defendants on release.

“What we are seeing is a sea change and this is part of bail reform,” Hennessy told the San Francisco Examiner. “Bail is likely to go away and pretrial assessments are likely part of what is replacing bail.”

The news came the same day a San Francisco judge ordered the release of a man whose case led to the bail reform ruling. Kenneth Humphrey, 64, had been held on $350,000 bail for more than 11 months for allegedly robbing his elderly neighbor and threatening to smother him with a pillow case.

In January, a California appeals court found that Humphrey was entitled to a new bail hearing. The landmark ruling essentially scrapped the schedule used to set bail based on particular crimes, finding that it is unconstitutional for judges to set bail without considering a defendant’s ability to pay.

On Thursday, Judge Brendan Conroy ordered Humphrey’s release to a residential treatment center on conditions including electronic monitoring.

Hennessy, who supports bail reform, said that defendants facing more serious charges such as child molestation, stalking and sex trafficking have also been released under supervision since the Humphrey decision.

“I am a little concerned with the kinds of charges we’re seeing,” Hennessy said. “Some of these would not have been even eligible or considered for release prior to Humphrey.”

But Hennessy also noted that defendants “with horrendous histories” had been released under supervision before the Humphrey decision who did not reoffend. “That’s the key to pretrial release,” Hennessy said.

“I’m not making a value judgement at all because I’m not the judge and I don’t know the particulars of the case,” Hennessy said. “The judges have to make their decisions based on each unique case.”

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has championed bail reform in San Francisco, said the Humphrey decision is just one of the factors causing more people to be released from jail before trial.

“We’ve been focused not only on fighting for bail reform but putting together a model system of release, meaning that for a person that should be released from jail, that it occurs quickly and without delay,” Adachi told the Examiner.

Proponents of bail reform argue there is no reason for many defendants to be locked behind bars just because they can’t afford to make bail. In the case of pretrial releases in San Francisco, Adachi said “by and large most of these cases do not involve violence, do not involve serious felonies.”

Adachi said some serious cases that start off with charges like kidnapping and attempted murder are often reduced.

“We know that there is a systematic pattern of overcharging in these cases,” Adachi said. “When you hear the initial charge you might think, ‘oh my god,’ [but] it might turn out to be different.”

Nancy Rubin, head of the Pretrial Diversion Project, said the nonprofit has been saddled with extra casework since the Humphrey decision.

“This decision and other trends really did change the profile of the agency over the last couple years,” Rubin said. “We used to do parking tickets.”

Rubin said best practices call for one case manager to handle 15 cases, but her nonprofit is currently operating at ratio of one person to 33 cases. The group’s average daily caseload has also grown from 900 to 1,000 at present.

“It’s definitely put a strain on us, there’s no question,” Rubin said. “These ratios that we’re working at right now are not acceptable, it’s not good for public safety.”

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