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State Plan to Eliminate Cash Bail Raises Questions from Santa Barbara County Leaders

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10 on Tuesday and opposition coalition has already launched effort to undo the new law

jail under construction Click to view larger
The bill signed into law Tuesday would eliminate cash bail in October 2019, by which time Santa Barbara County’s Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria will be operating to house pre-trial inmates and people serving their sentences.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A new law promising a dramatic change to the criminal justice system by eliminating cash bail that frees some defendants awaiting trial has drawn mixed reviews in Santa Barbara County.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10, the California Money Bail Reform Act, into law Tuesday, eliminating the state’s cash bail system.

The law, which will take effect Oct. 1, 2019, will create a new system for determining if a defendant should remain in custody while awaiting trial based on risk assessment, weighing public safety and probability of missing a court date, rather than their ability to pay cash bail.

“Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday.

But the final version of the bill has drawn questions and criticism, with defense attorney Stephen Dunkle of Santa Barbara-based Sanger, Swysen and Dunkle calling the change “potentially a bad thing.”

The change would end the practice of keeping what defense attorneys contend were too many people stuck in jail, although they had not been convicted of a crime. It also addresses what Dunkle called “the inherently unequal system” that allows people with money to post bail for freedom, while those who can’t afford it remain in custody.

However, he added, an earlier version of the bill would have better addressed the problem of too many pre-trial defendants being held in custody.

“It’s a really tough call,” said District Attorney Joyce Dudley in reaction to the bill.

“I’m all about justice and it just seems unjust if two people committed the same crime and had the same record, but one person has to stay in county jail while the other gets to go home to their family and the only difference is money,” Dudley said.

Cash bail also has served as a major motivator for some defendants, leaving questions whether they will show up for court without the carrot, Dudley said.

“Money was one of the great reasons people came back to court,” she said of the cash bail system, in which missing court can be costly for the defendant or family members who posted collateral.

main jail Click to view larger
Hundreds of pre-trial inmates are housed at Santa Barbara County’s Main Jail.  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Instead of setting bail as spelled out on a schedule based on the charges, judges working in the new system would apply a risk assessment test to determine who should stay in jail and who could be released, with the final decision left up to judicial discretion. 

Critics have questioned if the discretional risk assessment will carry racial bias.

“I think that’s a valid concern. Testing devices aren’t perfect and when you’re talking about using testing to determine whether someone gets their liberty or not and they haven’t been convicted of anything yet, that’s certainly a concern,” Dunkle said. 

Now, people with money can post bail in most cases, while those without funds wind up seeking a bail reduction or to be released on their own recognizance.

“My main concern is I think the decision of whether to have a preventative detention should be a pretty rare scenario in a very serious case, and this seems to allow for that decision to be made more frequently,” Dunkle  said.

He feared the approved new bail system appears to allow more detention without the possibility of pre-trial freedom, which could spark more hearings.

Other questions center on the impact to the court system, already coping with clogged calendars that has meant delays for some trials, and whether there will be detention hearings since the existing system allows people to post bail. 

And Dudley said she doesn’t know how the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department will prepare for the changes, since it’s not known if the number of jailed inmates will rise or fall with implementation. 

Answers to the questions about replacement to cash bail may take awhile.

On Wednesday, a coalition opposed to the changes — including public safety leaders, concerned citizens, criminal justice reformers and crime victims’ advocates — announced it plans to work on a ballot initiative to block the implementation, according to the American Bail Agent Coalition

The group must gather 365,880 valid signatures from registered voters in California within 90 days for the initative to appear on a future ballot.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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