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Lawmakers discuss reform for California's bail system

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) on Tuesday led a discussion among attorneys and advocates on the need to reform the process through which judges award offenders bail in California, a system he says criminalizes the poor and doesn’t protect communities.

In a hearing held at the Elihu Harris State Building in Oakland, Bonta said lawmakers must search for alternatives to the state’s “cash bail system,” which in most cases requires defendants to post a fee up front before they are released while their case is pending. Under the rules, people are evaluated on their ability to pay, he and other panelists said, rather than whether they are willing to make their next court date or pose a danger to society.

Bonta, whose office has been studying the issue all year, said he plans to introduce legislation at the start of the next session in December.

“To me, at its core, this is an issue of social, economic and racial justice,” he said. “It is going to be a heavy lift. It is a massive, fundamental change to the status quo.”

When people cannot afford to pay for pretrial release, they can lose their employment or housing, the panelists said. Even three days in jail can result in loss of wages, jobs and family connections, leaving some defendants 40% more likely to commit crime in the future, studies show.

The policies disproportionately affect minorities, the panelists said.

“If you can lose your home, if you can lose your car, if you can lose your job, without ever being convicted of anything, that is punishment,” said Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón said at least 29 jurisdictions have developed “risk-assessment” models, which allow court and pretrial staff to use data and other evidence to determine whether a person should be released. But representatives from two bail bondsman companies urged lawmakers not to completely do away with the surety bail, saying it allows defendants access to their civil liberties.

Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) said the concerns with the current system extended well beyond California, where 65% to 75% of detainees in county jails statewide are awaiting trial, not serving sentences.

Hancock authored legislation requiring counties to use risk-assessment tools when preparing pretrial reports for inmates. The bill passed the Senate but died in the Assembly.

“The system is overdue for reform,” she said.

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