Effort To Reform California Bail System Stalls In The Legislature

MARTINEZ (KPIX 5) — An effort to reform California’s bail system has stalled in the state legislature.

The bill, proposed by an Oakland assemblyman, would require taking a suspect’s economic status and criminal past into account when determining bail.

Opponents, Including the reality T.V. Star known as “Dog The Bounty Hunter,” have lobbied hard against the measure.

On Thursday night, the bill failed by a single vote in the assembly.

But lawmakers may revisit the issue after a commission of judges makes recommendations.

One Bay Area county, a process that does consider economic factors and criminal history is already in place.

Contra Costa Superior Court Superior Court Judge Steven K. Austin said, “One thing that’s important about it – It’s not like we just plug it into the robot and it spits out whether or not the person is going to be released.”

For most of his 17 years on the bench, Judge Austin handled bail hearings pretty much by the book.

He’d check the bail schedule, match the criminal code with the prescribed amount, and that was it.

But now, that process often includes an algorithm.

“And then you know – through statistics really – how likely someone is to re-offend, or how likely they are to come back,” Austin explained.

It’s a way many jurisdictions are trying to end what public defenders have long seen as an unfair choice for poor defendants:

Chesa Boudin with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office said, “Which is plead guilty to get out of jail and go back to your life, family and job.  Or, assert your innocence in a case where you may have done nothing wrong, but stay in jail because you are too poor to buy your freedom.”

The new approach still uses the bail schedule, but it also looks at things like a defendant’s criminal history, employment status, family and housing circumstances. And that gives a judge more flexibility, something that can help ease our soaring jail costs.

“A substantial proportion of people in our county jails are not convicted of any crime,” Austin said.

And remember, we do have cheaper ways of tracking defendants.

“It’s a policy that made a lot more sense hundreds of years ago,” Boudin said.

So how is the algorithm approach working in Contra Costa County?

Austin said, “93 percent of them have not re-offend.”

And that’s the statistic that could change the way California courtrooms tackle bail.

“I like any program where we get to work with all parts of the justice system, to do something that is better for all of us – and I think this is one of those programs,” Austin said.

Last year, San Francisco’s City Attorney decided not to defend the city in a federal lawsuit claiming the bail system is unconstitutional.

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