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Coronavirus-era ban on bail for nonviolent cases will end June 20

Criminal defendants accused of nonviolent crimes will be required to post bail in many California counties later this month after a vote Wednesday by state judicial leaders to repeal a zero-bail order they issued two months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Judicial Council, the policy-making body for California courts, said its members voted 17-2 to lift the previous order and allow local judges to set bail for most defendants after their arrest, starting June 20.

Under the previous order, the council said, more than 20,000 defendants have been freed without bail while awaiting trial or pretrial hearings, “helping keep jails and courts from becoming vectors for the spread of COVID-19 between inmates, jail staff and surrounding communities.” The council said it will encourage counties to maintain zero-bail policies when necessary to protect inmates and communities from the coronavirus by reducing the jail population.

Some counties have voluntarily moved away from cash bail, which keeps arrestees behind bars if they cannot afford to pay bail or the non-refundable 10% deposit charged by bail-bond companies. San Francisco abolished its post-arrest bail system for all charges this year in a settlement with inmate-rights groups after a federal judge declared the city’s bail rules unconstitutional. The new rules allow judges to hold individual defendants without bail if the evidence shows they would pose a risk to the public.

California voters will decide in November whether to eliminate cash bail statewide for all crimes. Legislation to abolish monetary bail and require judges to make individual risk assessments for each defendant was signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 and was due to take effect last October. But the law’s enactment was suspended when bond companies collected enough signatures to qualify a referendum for the ballot. The companies argue that cash bail promotes public safety.

The Judicial Council voted unanimously April 6 to reduce bail to zero for defendants charged with misdemeanors and most nonviolent felonies, except for felonies related to domestic abuse, stalking, sex crimes or drunken driving. The order took effect a week later.

Police groups and some prosecutors opposed eliminating bail and said it would increase crime. While there have been individual reports of crimes by defendants released without bail, crime statewide has declined statewide during the pandemic, with far fewer people on the streets and roads. One notable exception has been domestic violence.

“The vast majority on zero bail did not reoffend,” said Judicial Council member Marsha Slough, a state appeals court justice in Riverside. “This was a health measure. …Our goal was to get people out of jail” where they faced an increased risk of COVID-19.

Now, she said, the population of county jails has decreased substantially, and should drop further with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to resume sending newly sentenced inmates from jail to state prison, starting June 19. Prisons remain crowded beyond their listed capacity, but their population has been reduced by coronavirus-related orders to release inmates with less than 60 days remaining in their sentences.

“We accomplished our goal,” Slough said in an interview. “Now we need to back away from that and let the local courts deal with their local COVID issues,” along with county supervisors.

Another Judicial Council member, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, had a different view.

“Congregate living situations are more conducive to the spread of this virus than if we are in a zero-bail situation,” she said Wednesday. “We are not seeing a spiking in crime or in recidivism. Why is this any different than when this whole thing started?”


This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronical on June 10th, 2020.  The original article can be read here.

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