Experts, advocates and lawmakers gathered on Tuesday to discuss changes to California’s bail system, which often requires defendants to pay a fee upfront in order to be released while their case is pending.
“In my view, the current system is broken,” said Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), who led the discussion at the Elihu Harris State Building in Oakland.
“The purpose of bail was to provide a path for an individual to go back to their life while they await trial with the guarantee they would return for their court date. It’s not happening that way today,” he said.
Bonta said that now, those who have the money can be released pretrial no matter how dangerous they may be, while those who can’t afford to pay bail may sit in jail for something as minor as a traffic ticket.
“The majority of people in California jails are unsentenced. Ninety percent of people retained pretrial are there because they cannot make bail,” said panelist Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Panelists attributed this to California’s cash bail system, which they said evaluates defendants on their ability to pay, rather than the danger they pose to society or whether they are willing appear at court.
Bonta and other speakers stressed how this can cause poor people to lose their jobs or housing if they cannot pay for their release, and that the inability to post bail disproportionately affects communities of color.
Some panelists suggested shifting away from a cash bail system and towards free trial services and “risk-assessments,” through which officials use data and evidence to determine whether a person should be released when making decisions about pretrial populations.
According to panelist and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, nearly 29 other jurisdictions have developed risk-assessment models.
Also on the panel was Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), who previously presented bail reform legislation that passed the Senate but died in the Assembly.
Hancock emphasized that over a billion dollars have been invested in the state’s jail system in the last six years, and advocated for reinvesting the money that could be saved by reforming the bail system into education and other rehabilitation programs.
“Money bail is an ineffective way to promote public safety. The amount of money someone has bears no relation to the risk they pose,” Norris said. “Bail and pretrial is really the widest part of the funnel, and if we want to take on mass incarceration this is where we should start.”
Bonta plans to introduce this legislation at the start of the next session in December.