Newsletter: The future of cash bail in California

Bad Boys Bail Bonds
Bad Boys Bail Bonds in Los Angeles.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 24, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Well, no one thought former Public Defender Chesa Boudin would enter the San Francisco district attorney’s office quietly.

Since being sworn in on Jan. 8, the progressive has fired at least seven prosecutors in a controversial purge, hired four new attorneys (including two from the public defender’s office) and created a diversion program for primary caregiver parents of minor children. And that was all just during his first week in office.

At the close of his second week in office, Boudin made news again with the announcement that San Francisco would be ending cash bail for criminal cases. According to a statement from his office, prosecutors will no longer request payment as a condition for pretrial release and will instead implement a “risk-based system” to determine whether a defendant will be subject to pretrial incarceration.


[Read the story: “San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin ends cash bail for all criminal cases” in the San Francisco Chronicle]

Wait, you may be thinking, didn’t California already end cash bail? The answer is yes, legislation was passed, and no, it’s not in effect. Here’s a quick primer on where things stand.

The passage of Senate Bill 10

In August 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that would have abolished the state’s current money bail system, and replaced it with one that grants judges greater power to decide who should remain incarcerated before trial.

Passage of the historic legislation further positioned California as a leader in criminal justice reform. It also marked a decades-in-the-making victory for Brown, who had first called cash bail a “tax on poor people” in his 1979 State of the State address. Advocates for reform have long argued that money bail furthers racial and economic inequities in the criminal justice system and favors the wealthy.

But the law also spelled disaster for the bail industry at large. Los Angeles is home to the largest jail system in the country, and California accounts for roughly a quarter of the nation’s multibillion-dollar bail market. (In an interesting aside: Only two countries in the world have a money bail system reliant on commercial bail bondsmen — the United States and the Philippines.)


The statewide referendum to overturn SB 10

A day after Brown signed the bill, a national coalition of bail agency groups launched a referendum drive to overturn it. By January 2019, it had collected more than enough signatures to qualify the measure for the November 2020 ballot. The certification of that statewide referendum meant that the landmark legislation was effectively put on ice — bail companies can stick to business as usual until California voters decide the bill’s fate this November.

A poll conducted last fall found that California voters remain sharply divided on the topic. State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), the law’s coauthor, said in October that the political campaign ahead will probably be expensive and closely watched.

Now, here’s where things get complicated, or shall we say even more complicated. SB 10 wasn’t opposed by just the bail industry. Last-minute changes to the bill led many of its loudest and earliest advocates to end up pulling their support, including the ACLU of California. Some criminal justice and civil rights groups feared that the final bill would grant judges too much power to put more people behind bars. So, the November ballot fight may reflect those fractured alliances.

“I think there’s a real lack of enthusiasm among progressive groups to organize against the initiative because there was so much disappointment in how the actual legislation turned out,” said Lara Bazelon, who directs the criminal juvenile justice clinic and the racial justice clinic at University of San Francisco Law School.

What comes next


San Francisco’s policy will be unaffected, regardless of how Californians vote on the referendum in November. As Bazelon, who served as a policy advisor to Boudin during his campaign, explained, district attorneys have “an enormous amount” of discretion. “The D.A. can decide what policies it wants to enact with respect to pretrial detention.”

Led by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, state judicial leaders have also been pushing for alternatives to money bail. Cantil-Sakauye has been a vocal critic of the state’s current bail system, which she has described as “outdated, unsafe and unfair.”

Decisions from the state Supreme Court have already significantly altered the way judges assign bail, with rulings to increase equal access to justice and prevent counties from burdening the poor.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Defying environmentalists and public health advocates, the Trump administration has announced the replacement of Obama-era water protections with a significantly weaker set of regulations that lifts limits on how much pollution can be dumped into small streams and wetlands. The changes to the Clean Water Act’s protections are expected to hit California and other Western states especially hard. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he hopes to reach a preliminary agreement with the Trump administration on a joint plan to help combat the city’s swelling homelessness crisis when he meets with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson on Friday. Los Angeles Times

The Lakers will have multiple players in the NBA All-Star game for the first time since 2013, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis both selected as starters. Los Angeles Times

The Sichuan hot pot takeover has begun. Last year, three major Sichuan hot pot chains from the mainland — Xiao Long Kan, Chun La Hao and Da Long Yi — opened outposts in L.A. Los Angeles Times

Shancheng Lameizi Hot Pot in San Gabriel serves Chongqing-style hot pot and offers a "Nine Boxes Spicy Pot" that allows you to cook different items in each box.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California’s secret ski resort will be open this weekend: Mt. Waterman is L.A.’s nearest and coziest ski resort. Los Angeles Times

Sundance buyers, beware! As Hollywood makes its annual pilgrimage to Park City, studios may be more cautious after last year’s flops. Los Angeles Times



Families reunite after nearly two years apart: A nighttime reunion at LAX serves as a reminder of the effects of the Trump administration’s family separation policy on migrant children and parents. Los Angeles Times


Rep. Adam Schiff’s role in the Trump impeachment trial has drawn the usual fire but also unlikely praise. “Good job,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), a staunch Trump ally and critic of the impeachment, told Schiff (D-Burbank) as they passed each other in the Capitol. “Very well-spoken.” Los Angeles Times

New opposition leaves the future of housing bill SB 50 up in the air: With less than 10 days until a key deadline, State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and a coalition of groups representing low-income communities are now opposing the bill, which aims to increase housing growth in California. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco Mayor London Breed endorsed Mike Bloomberg for the Democratic presidential nomination, a decision that “carries political risk in San Francisco, where rising wealth inequality has reshaped the city.” San Francisco Chronicle

Former Gov. Brown is urging alarm as the Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight. Updated annually by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the clock uses minutes to midnight as a measure of humanity’s proximity to existential cataclysm, such as nuclear war or irreversible climate change. Sacramento Bee


Actress Annabella Sciorra confronted Harvey Weinstein from the witness stand. Sciorra’s two hours of wrenching testimony marked the first time one of Weinstein’s accusers stared him down in a criminal court. Los Angeles Times



Nearly 100,000 gallons of red wine spilled at a Healdsburg vineyard and eventually leaked into the Russian River. Officials said it could hurt water quality in the 110-mile tributary flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles Times


The number of Californians represented by unions rose last year, as national labor organizing stagnated. Los Angeles Times

A guide to eating more than 20 regional Chinese cuisines in Northern California. Plus, the stories behind the food. San Francisco Chronicle

Visit San Diego museums for half-off in February. February is San Diego Museum Month, and more than 40 museums will be offering halved admission during it. Fox 5 San Diego

Remembering Frances Clark, a pioneering marine biologist who tried to save the sardines. One of the first women to earn worldwide acclaim as a marine scientist, Clark spent much of the first half of the 20th century on a boat leading a crew of fishery researchers. Monterey County Weekly


Los Angeles: sunny, 75. San Diego: partly sunny, 68. San Francisco: cloudy, 58. San Jose: partly sunny, 63. Sacramento: partly sunny, 60. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory comes from Candy Bremmer:

In the early ’60s, I remember my mother getting all dressed up and dressing my sister and me in our Sunday best to board the No. 6 bus to downtown Los Angeles to do our Christmas shopping and of course visit Santa Claus at the Broadway department store. We would go to Clifton’s Cafeteria and have lunch, then off to Teds, a discount store where my sister and I could do our shopping for my parents and our siblings ... a family of six, all with our one dollar. Those were the best times of our youth.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.