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Expert Panel Agrees California's Cash Bail System Is Arbitrary, Unfair To Poor

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- California's "broken" cash bail system was the subject of a hearing in Oakland Tuesday called by state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who said he is committed to reforming the system this year.

"Our bail system jails tens of thousands of people in California for being poor," Bonta said.

The panel, comprised of civil rights leaders, legislators and attorneys, all agreed that cash bail was an arbitrary method of determining who to release while awaiting trial.

David Bell, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said that in Santa Clara County the median time arrestees spend in jail while awaiting trial for misdemeanors is over a month, with more time served by the poorest detainees who can't even afford the lowest bail.

The time served in jail can complicate people's lives further, making it more likely they commit another crime in the future.

"If we want to take on mass incarceration this is where we should start," Bell said. "Even a short time in jail increases the risk of criminal activity pre-trial. Longer pre-trial stints are associated with loss of employment and housing."

Reform of the system would likely be arduous. Abandoning the cash bail system altogether would likely take an amendment to the state's constitution, which guarantees a right to bail, and more modest reform efforts have already been shot down.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, who also participated in the panel, introduced a bill in 2013 that would have granted more flexibility in releasing certain defendants on their own recognizance.

The bill had the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations, as well as the California Public Defenders Association and the Richmond Police Department.

It was opposed by the American Bail Coalition, the Golden State Bail Association, Aladdin Bail Bonds and the California District Attorneys Association.

Hancock said it couldn't muster a majority in the state assembly, despite passing in the senate.

But at least one district attorney, San Francisco's George Gascon, is in support of reforming the bail system, pointing out that releasing people based on the amount of money they have rather than the risk they pose, is a public safety issue.

"When we talk about releasing people based on money, we are really ignoring the risk that that person presents or does not present to public safety," Gascon said.

He advocated the use of data-driven risk assessment tools, an experimental approach to determine algorithmically who poses the least risk, giving judges an objective tool to help make decisions on bail.

The White House touted the approach in a news release last week as part of a broader package of data-driven police reforms.

But such high-tech tools may not even be necessary.

Kentucky abandoned its bail system in 1976 in favor of a risk-assessment model and a federal study in 2011 found that despite a high pre-trial release rate of 74 percent, 93 percent of those released were not re-arrested and 92 percent appeared in court when required.

Bail bondsman Jeff Stanley attended Tuesday's meeting to oppose any reform to the cash bail system, saying that bail and keeping people in jail is a method to "protect society."

"In the last year, we've had a 10 percent increase in violent crime. And the thing is, we're putting these people back into the neighborhoods," Stanley said. He blamed the increase in violent crime on California's voter-approved Proposition 47, which reduced certain non-violent felony offenses to misdemeanors.

Many panelists raised concerns that not only was the cash bail system arbitrary, but it could also be used for more nefarious purposes, allowing prosecutors to leverage defendants into taking harsh plea deals rather than go to trial.

"The use of the threat of bail to get a plea bargain would be something we would want to find a way to mitigate," Hancock said.

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