California Supreme Court ends cash bail for defendants who can’t afford to pay

The state's cash bail system for pretrial release has been dealt a blow

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The California Supreme Court has dismantled the state’s cash bail system for pretrial release.

On Thursday (March 25), the justices ruled that judges must, in most cases, consider a suspects’ income and ability to pay when bail is set. Per The Associated Press, low-income defendants must be freed while awaiting trial, unless they are deemed too dangerous to be released.

“The common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional,” the justices said in a unanimous decision.

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Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar noted that when a judge decides that cash bail is necessary, the judge “must consider the arrestee’s ability to pay the stated amount of bail — and may not effectively detain the arrestee solely because the arrestee lacked the resources to post bail.”

Judges can order newly arrested defendants to be released under electronic monitoring or regular check-ins with a pretrial case manager, or suspects can be sent to shelters or undergo drug and alcohol treatment, Cuéllar said.

The court’s ruling allows cash bail as long as defendants can afford it, according to the report. That’s where bail bond insurance companies swoop in to the rescue.

“It’s going to be a big change in the way the system works,” American Bail Coalition Executive Director Jeff Clayton said. “The lens of due process is going to be on every bail, because prosecutors are going to have to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, a flight risk or danger.”

In 2018, state lawmakers sought to do away with the cash bail system but bail bond companies pushed back against the measure. Voters in November rejected legislation that would have put the no-bail law into effect.

The high court’s ruling “doesn’t eliminate bail completely, but it eliminates the unfairness of bail,” said Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzber. The bail system in California “spun out of control and this brings it back to its core principles of what bail is supposed to be about in the first place,” he added.

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“The research is clear, the negatives of cash bail fall disproportionately on Black and Brown communities without improving safety,” said Chief Probation Officers of California Executive Director Karen Pank. “Wealth should play no role in the justice system and we will continue to fight for a pretrial system that focuses on safety, fairness and effectiveness.”

California's Cash Bail System Eliminated By Gov. Jerry Brown
A sign advertises a bail bond company on August 29, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The ruling on Thursday was supported by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who said… “The jail house door shouldn’t swing open or closed based on how much money you have in your pocket.”

The high court unanimously concluded “that our Constitution prohibits pretrial detention to combat an arrestee’s risk of flight unless the court first finds, based upon clear and convincing evidence, that no condition or conditions of release can reasonably assure the arrestee’s appearance in court.”

The ruling was issued in the case of 66-year-old Kenneth Humphrey of San Francisco, who was arrested in May 2017 for stealing a $5 bottle of cologne and spent more than eight months in jail because he couldn’t post $350,000 bail.

“The money bail is there to ensure that they do come back for their trial date, and they’re incarcerated to protect the victim or the public,” said attorney Kymberlee Stapletd for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. ”It’s hard to tell what impact this will have on victim and public safety going forward.”

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