California voters must approve law to end bail before trial

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The nation's first law eliminating bail for suspects awaiting trial is on hold until California voters decide whether to overturn it, officials said Wednesday.

A referendum that qualified for the 2020 state ballot would overturn the law signed last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement. The law would replace bail with a risk-assessment system -- although it's still unclear how the system will work. 

The law scheduled to go into effect in October 2019. Now it must be approved by a majority of voters before it can take effect.

The rules would give the state's judicial council broad authority to reshape pretrial detention policies. Based on the council's framework, each county's superior court will set its own procedures for deciding who to release before trial, potentially creating a patchwork system based on where a suspect lives.

Most suspects accused of nonviolent felonies will be released within 12 hours of booking, while those charged with serious, violent felonies will stay in jail before trial.

The law would give judges wide latitude to decide what to do with other suspects based on their likelihood of returning to court and the danger they pose to the public.

It's the latest development in the nationwide debate over bail, which many people say unfairly punishes people for being poor. 

Advocates of the California law say incarceration should depend on a suspect's risk to public safety, not the ability to pay.

Opponents, including some social justice groups, argue the new law gives judges too much power to decide who should be released and will allow dangerous people to go free.

The law would let counties set up their own pretrial assessment agencies or run their risk assessment programs through existing probation departments.

The referendum needed more than 402,000 signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot, and it exceeded that threshold this week, Padilla said.