A measure to overhaul how California treats criminal defendants awaiting trial cleared a key hurdle in the state Capitol Tuesday -- and underwent some changes.
Lawmakers pushing to upend the current money bail system have made several tweaks to Senate Bill 10 in recent days, all aimed at addressing concerns raised by prosecutors and judges. And they said Tuesday that they are open to making more.
The bill would move California away from a system that requires most criminal defendants to give hundreds or thousands of dollars to bail bond agents before they are released from jail -- instead directing courts to let people go free if they don’t pose a risk to public safety. Defendants would undergo a scientifically based risk assessment undertaken by pretrial services agencies, which already exist in some, but not all, California counties.
If the risk assessment recommends a defendant for release, there could be conditions on someone's release, such as check-ins with probation officers or electronic monitoring, like ankle bracelets -- but under the bill, the default would be for courts to let nonviolent offenders wait for their trial date at home.
Critics of the current system argue it punishes the poor while letting rich defendants buy their freedom. But the bail bond industry is pushing back, saying bail works to keep communities safe and ensure that defendants show up in court.
Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta wrote the legislation with Los Angeles state Sen. Bob Hertzberg. The Democrats recently made some amendments -- including clarifying that courts should consider a person’s criminal history when deciding whether to release them, and requiring that victims are notified before someone charged with a serious felony is released.
The amendments would also let counties charge defendants for the cost of pretrial services like ankle monitors, if that person is able to pay.
"We are taking into account the input we are getting from opponents and other stakeholders, and we are trying to address each one one-by-one, while retaining the integrity of the bill," Bonta said after the hearing, where members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee approved the bill on a 4-2 vote.
Earlier, Hertzberg told committee members he'd be open to further tweaks recently recommended by the courts, including phasing in the changes over a two-year period.
But bail bond agents say they still think the bill will put the public at risk.
"We as bail bondsman know what we do in our criminal justice system, and we know it works, and we want to keep a system that works," said Topo Padilla, who heads the Golden State Bail Agents Association and owns a bail bond agency in Sacramento.
While Republicans on the committee opposed the bill, supporters have challenges ahead with Democrats as well. The bill next heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where its costs will be examined. Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, voted for SB 10 in the Public Safety Committee Tuesday, but warned Bonta and Hertzberg that they still have work to do around its costs.
Bonta said he knows they will have to get creative to fund the initial costs of creating pretrial services agencies and instituting risk assessment tools in all 58 counties. But, he said, the changes will eventually save taxpayers money.
"We know we have work to do -- funding has always been a challenge when you fundamentally transform a system. Even if it's making it more just, more fair, more right, there are costs," he said.
"It takes money to get (new programs) up and running, so there's upfront, front-loaded costs," Bonta said. "But in the long term, we save money because everybody knows it's a lot cheaper to have someone on pretrial supervised release, as opposed to having them in jail."
According to Bonta and Hertzberg, 63 percent of the inmates in county jails are awaiting trial or sentencing -- about 46,000 people on any given day -- and the average daily cost for each inmate is $100.