California's top judge calls for end to cash bail

By SUDHIN THANAWALA
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- California's top judge said Tuesday she wants to do away with the state's cash bail system, adding a powerful voice to criticism that it keeps poor people behind bars while wealthier suspects can pay for their freedom.

The bold proposal endorsed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye would instead rely on assessments of defendants' flight risk and danger to the public to determine whether they should be released.

The proposals are contained in a report by a group of judges that concluded the state's cash bail system "unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety" and "exacerbates socioeconomic disparities and racial bias."

The changes would require legislative approval to go into law, and Cantil-Sakauye, appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the report should serve as a framework for discussions with Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature.

"I support the conclusion that California's current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety," she said in a statement.

The proposal is likely to face opposition from the bail industry. Similar bail reform measures approved in New Jersey and New Mexico have faced lawsuits.

The centuries-old cash-bail system has become one of the flashpoints in the debate over equal justice.

Supporters of cash bail say it ensures people show up to court because they forfeit their money if they fail to appear.

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the bail industry trade group, the American Bail Coalition, said states that have tried similar measures have seen defendants commit new crimes.

"The system is continuing to release them," he said. "There's no monetary backstop."

Clayton also raised concerns about how much the reform proposal would cost California taxpayers. The judges' report calls for a significant initial investment of resources for new judges, court staff and infrastructure to evaluate defendants for release, though it doesn't give an exact figure.

Critics of cash bail argue that many poor defendants languish in jail for minor offenses while wealthy suspects accused of serious crimes can often post bail while awaiting trial. They say some of those people could also pose a risk to public safety.

"Someone's arrested, and they write a check or put it on their credit card and they're out," said Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys, who authored a bail reform bill with proposals similar to those made by the judges' group.

Earlier this year, friends and relatives of a slaying victim were outraged when a real estate scion charged with orchestrating the killing was released from a San Francisco Bay Area jail after posting $35 million bail, including $4 million in cash and at least 15 properties worth a combined $62 million.

The judges' report says instead of cash bail, judges could order weekly contact with a pretrial services officer, monitoring, home confinement, or other restrictions. It also says judges should have the authority to hold suspects in the most serious cases.

The state Senate approved Hertzberg's bail reform bill in the most recent legislative session, but Hertzberg has said he would have had to make additional compromises to get it through the Assembly before the Legislature adjourned in mid-September.

He said Tuesday that he plans to push the bill next year and thinks the chief justice's support and the judges' report will give it a boost.

"It's an absolutely bright line analysis that says the current commercial bail system does not work and doesn't provide safety," he said.

Brown, a Democrat, has pledged to work on ways to reform the bail system "in a cost-effective and fair manner."

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