Editorial: Los Angeles County tiptoes forward on bail reform

An inmate peaks through the bars at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles.
An inmate peaks through the bars at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should give quick approval Wednesday to a proposal by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl to consider overhauling the county’s money bail system. Too bad it’s the only thing about this vital effort that could be done with any urgency.

It should be obvious that it’s long past time to reconsider a system that keeps L.A. County jails crowded with people who are just cooling their heels awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay bail, while their riskier but richer cellmates can buy their way out.

Kuehl deserves praise for pressing forward on the issue, and for crafting a courageous and creative motion written in that peculiar language known as county-ese. It’s careful to not claim too much leadership for Kuehl or to alienate any other supervisor, to name every possible stakeholder (from families of the incarcerated to the Criminal Courts Bar Assn.), and to give a shout-out to the very same bail bond industry that protects and defends a costly system that several states have eliminated.

That’s how you have to do things in L.A. County — on tiptoes. Many previous efforts at safe pretrial release have been spiked because various officials or interest groups felt some initiative was moving past them without the imprint of their own supposedly guiding hands.


People held in jail even for two or three days because they had no money for release were 17% more likely to commit another crime within two years.

Certainly it would be foolish to try to get something done without seeking input from people that have a stake in the outcome. But fluency in county-ese is made necessary because of something more worrisome that we’ll call county-itis: a serious condition that makes crucial policy changes too hard and too time-consuming to achieve.

Consider for example that the motion calls on lawyers to review the county’s current bail policies, then hire consultants to examine how other jurisdictions assess the risk of setting pretrial defendants free, study whether to create a pretrial services agency, and on and on. They are all the right questions, but they have been asked already, and answered, over and over.

In 2011, state law gave the Board of Supervisors the power to do no-money, risk-based pretrial release, if only they authorize the sheriff to act — but they haven’t done it. They same year, a criminal justice consultant studied the county jail population and identified at least 1,000 beds that could be freed up for more serious offenders if the county released a small proportion of pretrial inmates who couldn’t pay bail. It didn’t happen. In 2015, the county was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant to study how to safely reduce the jail population by, for example, releasing low-risk inmates who were locked up because they had no money for bail. The value of the grant is not merely the $150,000 cash, but millions of dollars’ worth of technical assistance, data analysis and expertise which already are at the county’s disposal — yet the county can’t seem to leverage those resources into a bail reform plan.

Other studies in other states and counties have moved forward, and (as Kuehl’s motion gently notes) money bail has been safely reduced or eliminated in places like New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois — and even Kentucky, hardly at the leading edge of progressive criminal justice reform.

Research by the Arnold Foundation revealed that people held in jail even for two or three days because they had no money for release were 17% more likely to commit another crime within two years than were people released within 24 hours.

In Winnebago County, Wis., Republican Dist. Atty. Christian A. Gossett examined the data, saw the disparate treatment of the indigent, and simply waived appearances in bail hearings. In other words, it was the prosecutors — the ones trying to convict the accused — who demanded that defendants be freed pending trial. That kind of courageous leadership is nearly unheard of in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Sen. Robert Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland, both Democrats, are crafting a bill to make risk rather than wealth the determining factor for whether a defendant is released before trial. If passed and signed into law, it would apply statewide.

So good for Los Angeles County for moving forward. But L.A. residents should know that when it comes to the smart use of taxpayer money, protection of civil rights and facility with data, their elected officials have so far led their region to somewhere between the middle and the back of the pack. It’s time they caught up.

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