The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to explore possibilities for reforming the county’s bail and pretrial release system.
LA County joins California and other states and local jurisdictions seeking to reduce their reliance on cash bail, which has a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority Americans, and contributes to overcrowding in jails.
“Imagine waiting in jail month after month for your trial even if a judge has determined that you pose minimal threat to public safety,” said Supervisor Kuehl who introduced the motion with Supe. Hilda Solis. “In the process, you may lose your job, your home, even your family, all because you didn’t have the money to post bail.”
The motion directs County Counsel to review the county’s current policies and practices surrounding bail and pretrial release. The county will also hire a consultant to assess the best practices for establishing and using evidence-based risk assessment tools.
Risk assessment efforts have been touted as a means of reducing the country’s astronomic prison population and corrections spending by estimating an offender’s risk of reoffending. Judges using risk assessment look at factors such as prior offenses, marital status, age, sex, education, and employment.
Nearly half of the county’s jail inmates are being held while they await trial—usually because of an inability to post bail.
“Bail reform in Los Angeles County is long overdue,” said Supervisor Solis. “It’s unjust to keep people incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to post bail.”
The motion also directs County Counsel to connect with the CEO’s Office to consider alternatives for using bail bondsmen. The motion suggests the possibility of having defendants submit a refundable 10% deposit directly with the court, for example.
Supe. Kuehl suggested implementing pretrial services that have worked in other jurisdictions—like automated calls or text messages sent out to remind people of their upcoming court dates.
The motion to explore updating the county’s bail system is supported by the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Probation, and the Public Defender’s Office, but has been opposed by the local bail industry.
Bail companies are already sending out court date notifications and performing some of the other functions the board seeks to evaluate, bail bondsman Joel Horowitz said at the board meeting. “Instead of investigating a way to eliminate and to scapegoat the bail bond agents, the board ought to investigate reducing bail schedules or creating a bail fund to subsidize bail for the indigent or the homeless.” Horowitz said. “This [motion] lays the foundation for another bureaucratic, inefficient government-run monopoly without a way to pay for it.”
Supporters of the motion, like the Youth Justice Coalition’s Kim McGill pointed out that pretrial detention carries both human and financial costs. McGill called for a “focus on prearrangement release, not just pretrial release,” arguing that the first few days behind bars before the arraignment are extremely expensive for both the accused and the county.
“The bail system does not protect public safety,” added Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union. “In fact, there is good research that has been done over the last few years that shows that people who are detained pretrial are more likely to commit crimes in the future than similarly situated people who are not detained.”
While the causes are not fully known, it’s believed that loss of jobs, housing, and other collateral consequences are factors, Eliasberg explained. “So there’s nothing to recommend the bail system. Reform is long overdue.”