A landmark bill to end money bail in California passed out of the state Assembly on Monday, clearing a major legislative hurdle despite mounting opposition to last-minute changes that gave judges greater power to decide who should remain incarcerated ahead of trial.
In a heated debate on the Assembly floor, both Republicans and Democrats expressed grave concerns over the late amendments and the push to rush the legislation to a vote. But supporters called the proposal a solid first step — one not likely to come again soon — toward overturning the status quo and helping thousands of families ensnared by what they described as a predatory bail system.
The legislation would virtually eliminate the payment of money as a condition for release from jail. Counties would have to establish their own pretrial services agencies, which would use a “risk-assessment tool,” or analysis, to evaluate people booked into jail to determine whether, and under what conditions, they should be released.
The changes released last week gave greater discretion to judges over conditions for all prisoners in a practice known as “preventive detention,” allowing them to decide which people are a danger to the community and should be held without any possibility of release.
“This might not be the perfect bill,” Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) said. “This might not go as far as people may want, either to the so-called left or the so-called right. But we need to do something.”
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who co-authored the legislation, said California had a chance to lead the nation in fixing a broken system based on wealth, not safety.
“This will be a paradigm-shifting move in the criminal justice system whose time has come,” he said.
Senate Bill 10 by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Bonta moved out of the chamber on a 41-27 vote. It now heads to the Senate for final approval.
On the Assembly floor Monday, supporters said the legislation had been two years in the making and had the backing of Gov. Jerry Brown. They argued the latest changes took into consideration concerns from law enforcement and victims’ rights groups, as well as recommendations from a judicial task force assembled by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
Chiu said the amendments would ensure defendants who posed a high risk to their communities wouldn’t be able to bail out and that prosecutors would do more to notify victims of a defendant’s release.
Under the latest version of the bill, only people charged with certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors — a list of charges that can be further narrowed by county — would be eligible for automatic release within 12 hours of being booked into jail.
All others arrested would have to undergo risk analysis, a system that would sort defendants based on criminal history and other criteria into low-, medium- or high-risk categories. Courts would be required to release low-level defendants without assigning bail, pending a hearing. Pretrial services offices would decide whether to hold or release medium-risk offenders.
But Republicans and Democrats disagreed over whether the bill would lead to more or less incarcerations, and opponents argued it could result in the release of dangerous offenders.
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said those disagreements were signs of compromise.
“For me, what we are doing now straddles right down the middle of where we need to go,” he said.
Some organizations that have supported the bill from the start remain behind the effort.
But other criminal justice reform groups have rescinded their support and are actively working to kill the legislation — landing on the same side as a bail industry that has worked to sink the bill from the beginning.
The American Civil Liberties Union became the latest major supporter to move its stance from neutral to opposed on Monday. Three of its executive directors said the new bill fell short of its intended goals and would compromise the right to fair court proceedings for criminal defendants.
“Unfortunately, this amended version of SB 10 is not the model for pretrial justice and racial equity that the ACLU of California envisioned, worked for, and remains determined to achieve,” read the statement from ACLU directors Abdi Soltani in Northern California, Hector Villagra in Southern California and Norma Chávez Peterson, representing San Diego and Imperial counties.
Outside the criminal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, home to the nation’s largest jail system, some 20 new opponents of the bill chanted “Reject SB 10!” More than a dozen more gave emotional speeches against the legislation outside the state Capitol in Sacramento.
Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley DeBug, said grass-roots community groups like his had “pushed the boulder up the hill” before the changes to the bill, which they considered a bait-and-switch. Other demonstrators said the measure would give judges unfettered power to hold people behind bars and lead to higher rates of incarceration with people locked up for longer periods of time.
“SB 10 will keep undocumented people accused but not convicted of crimes in custody longer without the option of bailing out quickly, exposing them to detection by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” said Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a group that helps people dealing with poverty.
Outside the Capitol, Glen Maxwell, 56, who is an activist with DeBug, said the new bill could lead to more defendants taking plea deals while they languish in jail, an experience he knows firsthand, he said. Maxwell, now a deacon at Greater St. John Baptist Church in San Jose, said he was released from prison a year ago after serving nearly four years for low-level drug possession charges.
“You get desperate,” he said. “You want some type of answer, so you will pretty much take the deal because those walls are just caving in on you. There’s a lot of stuff you are going through while you are in there.”