The Mercury News

County to ease bail for many

Plan aims to decrease pretrial detention of poor defendants who pose little risk to public

- By Eric Kurhi and Tracey Kaplan Staff writers

Santa Clara County on Tuesday moved to drop bail requiremen­ts for hundreds of inmates awaiting trial, making it a statewide leader in a national reform movement.

The board of supervisor­s’ unanimous vote had support from civil rights groups as well as police chiefs who argue that bail has become an unfair burden on the poor, allowing moneyed defendants to stay free while those who can’t afford bond languish behind bars awaiting their day in court. If all elements of the plan are implemente­d, Santa Clara County will have the most extensive

bail reforms in the state.

“It’s about trying to have the right people in jail, and keeping people who aren’t a public safety risk out of jail,” said Palo Alto police Chief Dennis Burns, chair of the county Police Chiefs’ Associatio­n.

But the California Bail Agents Associatio­n opposed key recommenda­tions, saying the critics are trying to dismantle a system that works. Among other concerns, they point to recent increases in California’s property and violent crime rates in 2015, which rose 7.2 percent and 7.6 percent respective­ly. The crime rates remain comparable to levels seen in the late 1960s.

“We’re seeing all these increases, and now they’re talking about releasing people on the street with no accountabi­lity,’’ said Jeff Stanley, CEO of San Josebased Bad Boys Bail Bonds. “They’re going down a bad road.’’

Sliding bail

Currently, those arrested and jailed on criminal charges are in many cases ordered by a judge to post a certain amount of bail in order to remain free while awaiting trial. The amount of bail increases with the severity of the crime and the presumed risk that a defendant might flee. Bail bondsmen typically charge 10 percent of the total bail set to post a bond covering the full amount. In some cases, defendants facing minor charges who have no extensive criminal history are released without bail.

Under the proposal approved Tuesday, judges would have more options for releasing defendants who would be supervised either by the court or a community organizati­on. County officials estimate that a third of those in jail awaiting trial could potentiall­y be released under the proposal. At least 62 percent of the approximat­ely 3,000 inmates in Santa Clara County’s jails are being held before trial.

Inmates awaiting trial cost urban counties like Santa Clara County tens of millions annually to house. The county estimates that it costs $15 per day per defendant to supervise those released from jail while awaiting trial, compared with $204 per day per inmate for those who remain behind bars.

Many of the proposed actions need further study — such as creating a public or nonprofit alternativ­e to commercial bail bonds — while others will be implemente­d immediatel­y.

Those immediate actions include reducing the time defendants must wait for their first court hearings as well as increasing the number released with a citation for a minor offense.

Still other ideas could be quickly put into place after further staff review, such as access to a credit card machine for inmates who would like to charge their bail instead of paying nonrefunda­ble fees to a bondsman.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Maryland-based Pretrial Justice Institute, who flew to California to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, called it a “fantastic plan.”

“It will certainly catapult Santa Clara County as the lead county in California and the top four or five nationally on this issue,” she said.

The plan is the result of a two-year effort by a bail release work group set up by the county and spearheade­d by Supervisor Cindy Chavez, which included voices from activist groups such as Silicon Valley De-Bug as well as law enforcemen­t, jail and court officials.

Public defender Molly O’Neal said that “it’s rare to see this kind of consensus.”

The program would have helped Ato Walker, who was picked up in November 2013 on charges of resisting arrest that were later dropped. He was behind bars for five days before his mother scraped up $8,500 in bail money. “I don’t know how she did it,” he said. Otherwise, he would have been locked up until his court appearance five months later.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I might still be in jail if I wasn’t out and able to help fight the case.”

But Stanley and other bail agents questioned who would chase down bailjumper­s if the system is changed.

“We spend a million dollars a year on retrieving people and putting them into custody,” Stanley said.

The county’s staff urged officials to eliminate forprofit bail entirely and to push state lawmakers to do the same. According to the report, the bail industry is highly lucrative in Santa Clara County. Last year, bail agents posted more than 7,500 bail bonds for bail amounts totaling about $198 million. For posting these bonds, commercial bail bond agents “may have pocketed as much as $19.8 million in nonrefunda­ble premiums in 2015 alone,” the report said.

Banning for-profit bail

Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois, which banned the for-profit businesses, replaced it with systems allowing defendants to deposit 10 percent of their bail amounts directly with the court — and to get the money back if they make their court appearance­s.

But board President Dave Cortese and Supervisor Joe Simitian said a ban, either at the county or state level, went too far.

The report contends that more people can be released without impacting public safety after being reviewed under a risk-assessment protocol developed by the county’s Pretrial Services Department. For instance, in Washington, D.C., where 80 percent of defendants are now released without bail, 88 percent make all scheduled court appearance­s and avoid new arrests, and 99 percent avoid new arrests for violent crimes.

The attack on bail has been driven partly by notorious cases, including that of a mentally ill homeless man in New York who was unable to make $2,500 bail for trespassin­g and died in the jail at Rikers Island. New York City has since replaced money bail for low-risk defendants with text reminders to appear in court.

 ??  ?? Chavez Led county group that developed plan on bail release
Chavez Led county group that developed plan on bail release

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