California voters are divided over bail reform, poll finds
California voters are sharply divided over the future of cash bail in a new statewide poll, although a slight plurality supports a new law to replace the system with one that would allow more defendants to be released before trial.
The poll, conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies for the Los Angeles Times, finds that 39% of likely voters would keep the new law in place. Thirty-two percent would cancel the law and reinstate the cash bail system, while 29% of voters are undecided.
The contested law, Senate Bill 10, was signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year. In January, a campaign funded by the bail bond industry successfully gathered enough voter signatures to place a referendum measure on the November 2020 statewide ballot in hopes of overturning the law.
Unlike a ballot initiative, which asks voters to enact a new law, a referendum provides a chance to cancel an existing law. As a result, the bail industry’s campaign will urge a “no” vote on the ballot measure, while supporters of SB 10 will urge a “yes” vote.
Justin Salters, a spokesman for the bail industry group that qualified the referendum, said the coalition “intends to run an effective campaign to educate voters on why they should reject SB 10" next November.
In the intervening months, the new law remains on hold. Even so, state judicial leaders are pushing ahead on a pilot program to move away from cash bail. California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has led the effort, insisting that the state needs a better system for assessing the danger of releasing some defendants during the criminal justice process.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), a coauthor of the law, said the poll results represent a good step for an electorate that still doesn’t know much about the issue. He said a key goal is explaining to voters that in most cases, the deposit a defendant pays to a bail company isn’t refunded when the person shows up for court.
“As soon as you tell people that you lose your bail money, their position changes dramatically,” Hertzberg said.
SB 10 would eliminate cash bail and give judges discretion on whether to release someone charged with a criminal offense. Judges would use a system that assesses the defendant’s risk to public safety in order to determine whether to release the person before a court hearing or trial.
Democrats and self-described liberal voters surveyed were more likely to keep the new law in place, while Republicans and those who said they are politically conservative were staunchly opposed to ending cash bail. The poll also found a sharp divide by age: 45% or more voters between 18 and 39 said they are willing to move to a risk-assessment model for releasing defendants, a position shared by close to one-third of older voters.
The poll was conducted Sept. 13-18 with 3,945 likely California voters who were contacted by email to fill out an online survey. The margin of sampling error was 2 percentage points.
The drafting and passage of SB 10 were marked by fierce debates last year at the state Capitol. The bail industry, given that the law would effectively eliminate the need for its services, warned of dire consequences should more defendants be allowed to leave jail. Law enforcement groups also opposed the effort.
Supporters of ending cash bail, including civil rights activists and groups representing low-income Californians, argued that the system unfairly links release from jail with a defendant’s ability to pay. Those most affected, they said, are defendants who are predominantly African American and Latino.
But the final version of SB 10 fractured alliances between cash bail critics. Some civil rights groups accused lawmakers of weakening the bill by creating too many procedural hurdles and providing few specific instructions to courts and probation officers — which, they argued, would lead to fewer nonviolent defendants released before trial.
The bail industry had initially considered mounting two ballot measure campaigns for 2020: one to cancel SB 10 by referendum and another initiative to enshrine the right to cash bail in the California Constitution. Last week, however, the industry group abandoned its effort for a constitutional amendment and decided to focus instead on its effort to overturn SB 10.
Swaying undecided voters will be key to both sides, and the new poll found a sizable number of people without a firm opinion in several voter subgroups.
Hertzberg said that with California representing such a large part of the nation’s bail business, the political campaign that lies ahead is likely to be expensive and closely watched.
“This really is ground zero in the fight over criminal justice reform,” he said.
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