Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón joined County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia in lauding a California Supreme Court decision Thursday that requires judges to consider a criminal defendant’s ability to post bail alongside less restrictive alternatives and to undertake an individualized consideration of the relevant factors when setting bail in a case.
“Today’s California Supreme Court ruling ends an unjust practice that favors the wealthy and punishes those with limited means,” Gascón said in a written statement. “We cannot have equal protection under the law when fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system hinge so decisively on financial status. The wealthy can be dangerous while the poor can pose no danger to our community. That is a reality that highlights just how broken and problematic wealth-based detention is for us all.”
The county’s top prosecutor said the ruling will “enhance safety, equity and help us restabilize those communities that have been most impacted by our dated system of monetary bail.”
Meanwhile, the county public defender said he encouraged “every justice reform advocate to take a moment and celebrate” the ruling, which came in response to a state appellate court panel’s decision that ordered a judge to conduct a new bail hearing in the case of a 66-year-old man charged with robbing a 79-year-old man at a senior citizens’ home where the two lived in San Francisco.
“We are confident that the judges in Los Angeles County will implement this important decision, protecting the rights of presumed innocent Angelenos,” Garcia said in a statement. “The front-line lawyers in my office will implement this decision in every case for every client, in every court, where our clients, many from communities of color, are locked up solely because they cannot post bond.”
The California Supreme Court took up the issue at the request of several entities, including the district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco, which was not a party to the appeal.
“What we must therefore conclude is that pretrial detention is subject to state and federal constitutional constraints,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote on behalf of the panel in the 25-page ruling. “Consistent with the aforementioned principles, we hold that such detention is impermissible unless no less restrictive conditions of release can adequately vindicate the state’s compelling interests.”
The ruling notes that courts may offer to release defendants on their own recognizance in cases where they pose little or no risk of flight or harm to others and that courts should consider whether non-financial conditions of release may reasonably protect the public and the victim or reasonably assure the arrestee’s presence at trial in cases where the record does reflect a risk of flight or a risk to public or victim safety.
“If the court concludes that money bail is reasonably necessary, then the court must consider the individual arrestee’s ability to pay, along with the seriousness of the charged offense and the arrestee’s criminal record, and — unless there is a valid basis for detention — set bail at a level the arrestee can reasonably afford,” Cuellar wrote, with the rest of the panel unanimously agreeing. “And if a court concludes that public or victim safety, or the arrestee’s appearance in court, cannot be reasonably assured if the arrestee is released, it may detain the arrestee only if it first finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that no non-financial condition of release can reasonably protect those interests.”
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said, “Hallelujah! We knew this day would come. Cash bail is unjust, and what the court made clear is that cash bail does not work. It does not make us safer, it wastes taxpayer money and it is discriminatory. We still have more to do, but this is a great day.”
Hertzberg introduced a bill with Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, that endeavors to reform “money bail.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, said he has also re-introduced a bill that encourages states to replace their existing bail systems with assessments that consider factors such as a person’s past criminal history and the current charge.
“Money bail creates a grossly unjust system where criminals are able to go free if they can fork up the cash while those that can’t are forced to languish in jail before their time in court,” Lieu said. “Those who can’t make bail can end up losing jobs and their homes, and sometimes their ability to care for their families. In short, money bail criminalizes being poor. I firmly believe that safety should be our primary concern when detaining someone before trial, and we shouldn’t make these decisions based on a person’s finances.”
The executive director of Chief Probation Officers of California said probation departments throughout the state “will continue to work to create programs that eliminate the role of wealth or financial status in pretrial release.”
“The research is clear, the negatives of cash bail fall disproportionately on Black and Brown communities without improving safety,” Karen Pank said. “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 for system-involved individuals and our communities.”