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Bail Hikes Applauded and Decried

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County’s top law enforcement officers Tuesday applauded newly adopted bail increases they say will help deter crime and result in a quicker review of cases.

“I think it will go a long way in public safety issues, to ensure that the offenders are kept incarcerated and aren’t free to reoffend,” said Lela Henke-Dobroth, chief deputy district attorney in charge of the sexual assault and family protection unit.

But defense attorneys within the county quickly criticized the increases, arguing the hikes will unfairly punish minor offenders and keep only those on the lower end of the economic scale behind bars.

“Higher bail does not necessarily mean a safer community,” argued Ventura defense attorney Tim Quinn. “It just means more poor people will be in jail.”

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Local judges last week approved bail increases for several offenses. Among the most significant changes were bail guidelines for charges of murder, which jumped from $250,000 to $500,000; rape, from $50,000 to $100,000; and first-degree burglary, from $10,000 to $50,000.

Sweeping changes were also made for domestic violence charges, for which bail doubled for spousal rape, misdemeanor violations of a restraining order and domestic battery. Also, bail now is automatically doubled for those with a previous domestic violence charge.

The changes were sparked by the December slaying of 37-year-old Vicki Shade, stabbed to death by her estranged boyfriend who at the time was out on $20,000 bail for a stalking charge and violating a restraining order.

By Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys were staunchly divided on whether the new guidelines meant progress for Ventura County law enforcement or simple get-tough-on-crime grandstanding.

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Among those touting the benefits was Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury, who acknowledged that Ventura County’s bail schedule was low compared with other counties. But Ventura County, he said, has historically been a low-crime area and had not needed a tougher bail standard.

Today’s prosecutors, however, are dealing with increasingly violent offenders, Bradbury said.

“Now we’re seeing the same problems and concerns as counties to our south,” Bradbury said, “so it’s appropriate to reassess our philosophy.”

Henke-Dobroth added that in her unit, which oversees cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child and elder abuse, prosecutors frequently see offenders out on bail repeating their crimes.

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“It happens all the time,” Henke-Dobroth said. “So I think this is a necessary step. We do the very best we can, we go along and the system seems to be working as it’s supposed to, until some tragedy occurs that has us all assessing where we can improve.”

The bail jumps have put Ventura County more in line with surrounding counties, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino, both of which have among the toughest bail guidelines in Southern California--a fact that has brought swift criticism from Public Defender Kenneth Clayman.

Clayman said it made little sense for Ventura County to carry the same hefty bond recommendations as counties where murders, rapes and violent assaults are far more prevalent.

“Other counties have a host of terrible crimes that are rampant,” Clayman said. “To necessarily point to those places and extrapolate that we need to have the same bail schedule is not clear thinking.”

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Local defense attorneys added that sharp increases would unfairly penalize defendants who are charged with less-serious crimes. Defendants accused of battery or charged with domestic abuse in a case in which there was little or no physical harm, for example, could spend as much time in jail as suspected murderers or rapists also awaiting trial.

“The problem is, you get these tragic cases, and sometimes they spawn oppressive legislation that works very harshly for people who don’t deserve it,” Clayman said. “And we have to remember, these are people not yet convicted of an offense--they are presumed innocent. You don’t treat that person as guilty while they are waiting for trial.”

Although prosecutors welcome the bail hikes, they say the new reforms will bring more work for the district attorney and sheriff’s officials.

For Bradbury, the changes mean prosecutors will have less time to review new cases. New inmates, unable to post bond after an arrest, will be stuck in jail. Since the law requires suspects in custody be charged within 48 hours of an arrest, prosecutors will have to act more quickly to review cases. The fast turnaround could mean Bradbury will have to juggle his staff, shifting more people to the unit responsible for reviewing incoming cases.

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Also, with more inmates unable to post bail, the jails will probably see a jump in population, acknowledged Ventura County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ken Kipp. But with Todd Road Jail, which opened in 1995, Kipp said his department can easily absorb the increase.


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