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Sweeping reform of California's bail system would come with a hefty price tag, says new analysis

A prisoner peeks through the bars of his cell at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)
A prisoner peeks through the bars of his cell at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

A new legislative committee analysis predicts that overhauling the bail system in California could be costly, adding a significant hurdle for Democratic lawmakers seeking to pass sweeping reform in the face of heavy opposition from law enforcement and the bail industry.

Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would end the use of money bail schedules, a set of fixed fees judges use to release people from jail while their cases are pending. The bill would instead require counties to establish pretrial services agencies to determine whether defendants should be released and, if so, on what conditions.

An identical version of the plan, authored by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), is moving through the Senate. And both are now awaiting action in the appropriations committees of the respective chambers.

The analysis released on Monday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee concludes that the state would have to spend "hundreds of millions of dollars" to reimburse counties for establishing and administering the new pretrial services. The state would also face ongoing expenses in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to pay court-appointed lawyers for defendants, according to the analysis.

The Assembly committee also noted costs for future oversight of the new bail system and for helping counties develop a "risk assessment" tool in carrying out the new rules.

AB 42 has not been set for a hearing. But at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Monday, more than a dozen bail agents voiced opposition to the Hertzberg bill, claiming that the actual annual costs to the state would be more than $2 billion. Reform advocates and civil rights lawyers, though, have argued that there could be significant savings realized by keeping fewer people behind bars.

Both bills face a May 26 deadline for moving out of the Legislature's fiscal committees.

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