California’s landmark law to end money bail was to take effect in October, but now is delayed for an additional 13 months because a referendum put forward by the bail bond industry to repeal the law qualified for the November 2020 ballot. It’s infuriating, but it’s no surprise. A nationwide empire of insurance companies, bail bond agents and bounty hunters has gotten rich by preying on families desperate to get their loved ones out of jail and back to their homes and jobs. It stands to reason that these interests would expend a lot of their ill-gotten money in an attempt to snuff out Senate Bill 10, which would put them out of business in California.
The bill eliminates the unjust practice of allowing personal wealth to determine whether people will be locked up before trial or walk free.
So what to do with that extra year? The judges and county agencies that have lead roles in implementing the law and bringing into being the post-bail world have a choice. They could relax, slow down, table their work for a year or so, turn their attention to other things and allow bail bond agents to continuing squeezing nonrefundable money out of people who just want to go home.
Or they could — and they should — move forward with all deliberate speed, in the knowledge that Californians and their representatives have demanded an end to the abusive money-bail system. They should keep October in their sights, not because SB 10 could still take effect then — the referendum prevents that — but because they will have to at the very least update the pretrial system, whether or not voters uphold the new law.
A federal court is likely to strike down San Francisco’s existing bail schedule as unconstitutional. Lawsuits in other counties are sure to follow. Even the bail industry acknowledges that changes are needed in the interests of justice.
Lawmakers should swiftly pass a bill to collect and analyze needed data — information about race, geography and gender, information that will help judges weigh the risks of keeping people locked up or sending them home, information that helps courts measure whether defendants are treated equally and fairly across the state. District attorneys should follow the lead of a growing number of their counterparts across the country and simply not seek bail in cases in which the probability is low that the defendant will be dangerous to others. Judges should exercise their discretion to release suspects without bail when appropriate.
After years of inaction — because of pressure from the bail bond industry — California last year finally became a leader in bail reform and in reducing the cost of justice. Referendum notwithstanding, this is no time to go slow. It’s time to press ahead.