Senate Approves Bail Reform Bill as Bail Lobby Pushes Back

Sen. Bob Hertzberg (shown here) and Assemblyman Rob Bonta are pushing bail reform. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

A bill that would massively overhaul the way California treats people who are accused of a crime and are awaiting trial was easily approved by the state Senate Wednesday, overcoming a huge lobbying push by the bail industry and some law enforcement groups.

Senate Bill 10 by Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg is identical to Assembly Bill 42 by Oakland Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta. SB 10 passed 25-11 on Wednesday; AB 42 is expected to come up for a vote in the Assembly on Thursday. The bills are not likely to receive final votes until later this summer.

The votes come as the bail industry and some law enforcement groups make a huge push to kill the legislation through lobbying lawmakers and launching a public relations campaign.

According to an analysis of state records by KQED, seven organizations -- representing bail agents and the insurance companies that back bail agents -- have spent nearly $170,000 lobbying state lawmakers between October and the end of March. The total amount spent on lobbying is likely much higher, since much of the push has occurred since April. Two other groups, including Tokio Marine, a huge, multinational insurance company, registered lobbyists in Sacramento for the first time ever in recent weeks.

It's not the first time the bail industry has been a player in Sacramento, however: KQED's analysis shows that the industry has spent $2.4 million lobbying state officials and lawmakers since 2000.

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But as the Legislature considers bills that could put many bail agents out of business, this year appears different. In addition to sending lobbyists to the state Capitol, one group -- the Golden State Bail Agents Association -- has launched a PR campaign that includes robocalls from Dog the Bounty Hunter, a TV personality famous for hunting down fugitives on a reality show. His calls to residents around the state warn that "car thieves, burglars and sexual predators" would be released if the bills become law.

The proposals by Hertzberg and Bonta seek to upend a cash bail system that critics say ignores public safety by letting rich, potentially dangerous people buy their way out of jail while leaving poor people either behind bars or in debt. The bills are being backed by civil liberties and criminal justice reform groups, including the ACLU.

If signed into law, the proposals would let most nonviolent offenders wait for their trial at home, instead of behind bars. The legislation would create a series of pretrial service agencies in California's 58 counties that would be charged with helping courts determine, when people are arrested, if they are a risk to public safety and if they are likely to show up to their next court date. Conditions -- including electronic monitoring or check-ins with court monitors -- could be imposed on defendants before they're cleared for release. Bail would still be an option if a judge determines it is needed.

"I want a justice system that delivers on justice for all Californians," Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. He said just because someone has been arrested, "it doesn't mean that you're a guilty person. There's a potential that you're innocent, and to lose your job, to lose your housing, to lose your family, that's not fair."

Anderson, a co-author of the measure, was one of only two Republicans to support SB 10. Other GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula), warned both of public safety risks and of jobs that would be lost if the bills become law.

"I have often criticized this body for being business unfriendly. But this bill is uniquely different -- it will abolish business by statue," Stone said. "Five thousand people will lose their jobs, it will devastate an industry dominated by women and minority owners, and it will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually on lost taxes."

But Hertzberg said lawmakers need to consider not just the jobs in the bail industry, but those of people who are arrested, get stuck in jail and are fired because they cannot post bail.

"What about the jobs of a person inappropriately in jail because they couldn't afford to get out -- what's the impact on their lives, their community?" he said. "The determining factors in any pretrial release should not be the size of your wallet, it should be the size of your risk to society."