Referendum to Block Bail Law Appears Headed for Ballot

Supporters of bail reform rallied in Sacramento on Aug. 23 in support of legislation to change the state's money bail system. They say it punishes the poor. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

A new state law set to take effect next year that would eliminate cash bail in California appears likely to stall until it's put before voters in late 2020.

Spearheaded by the state and national bail industry, proponents announced Tuesday that more than 576,745 signatures in support of a voter referendum on Senate Bill 10 had been submitted to elections officials. That's over 200,000 more signatures than is required to get the referendum on the November 2020 ballot.

The law changes pretrial detention in California — eliminating county-by-county bail schedules that set the amount of down-payments a defendant can post to be released pending trial, based on the alleged crime. Under the new system that was set to take effect in October 2019, defendants' flight risk and threat to public safety would be evaluated as low, medium or high, and judges would decide who goes free and who should remain in jail awaiting trial.

American Bail Coalition spokesman Jeff Clayton called SB 10 "a reckless attempt to reform the states' bail system" in a written statement announcing the submission of signatures for the referendum. He noted that civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, withdrew their support for SB 10 after a series of late amendments.

"SB 10 is the perfect example of last-minute deal making by the Governor, the legislature and labor unions absent input from all stakeholders," said Clayton.

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But the ACLU's goals are not aligned with the bail industry's, said Abid Soltani, executive director of the organization's Northern California chapter.

"We need to move forward to a system of pretrial justice where the vast majority of people can live their lives, go to work and be with their families while they await trial," said Soltani. "We do not want to go back to that system of exploiting people with financial bail while they’re awaiting trial."

The mere qualification of the referendum will keep California's cash-bail system in place for far longer, though. The referendum would halt SB 10's implementation until the vote in late 2020.

"The commercial bail industry will spare no expense in order to turn the clock back to preserve their industry, and we expect them to spare no exaggeration or misstatements or anything of that sort either, where they’re going to try to mislead voters," said Soltani.

State Senator Robert Hertzberg, SB 10's author, relayed a similar reaction through a spokeswoman.

"It’s no surprise to us that the billion dollar private-equity firms that control the bail bond industry in California have committed considerable resources to overturning SB 10," said Hertzberg's spokeswoman Katie Hanzlik in a written response. "They’ve shown that they will do anything to uphold the status quo of exploiting low-income Californians because it will keep their industry alive."

Referendum proponents say the law will cost billions as counties try to implement the new pretrial assessment system it requires.

But counties will continue to build that system over the next two years, Abid said, even if voters end up scrapping it in 2020.

Long before then, the California Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether SB 10 is constitutional, as provisions of the state constitution guarantee the right to bail in all but the most serious cases.

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