California Eliminates Money Bail

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 31, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As anyone will tell you, your freedom should not depend on how much money you have. But for many people charged with a crime, whether they could afford bail or not -- to say nothing of their guilt -- determined whether they would remain in jail until their case was resolved. The money bail system has often been the target of criminal justice reformers, and has recently fallen under the scrutiny of courts and judges as well.

A year after a California appeals court determined the state's bail system was unconstitutional, state lawmakers became the first in the country to abolish money bail for suspects awaiting trial.

Treating Rich and Poor Alike

"Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly," California Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement after signing the law. Instead of cash bail, local courts will create a "risk-based" system to determine who must remain jail and who may be released before trial. As described by the Sacramento Bee:

Counties will establish local agencies to evaluate any individual arrested on felony charges for the person's likelihood of voluntarily returning for court hearings and their chances of re-arrest.
A person whose risk to public safety and risk of fleeing is determined to be "low" would be released with the least restrictive non-monetary conditions possible, according to the bill. Those conditions are not specified in the law, but might include a monitor attached to a defendant's ankle or required check-ins with authorities between hearings.
"Medium-risk" individuals could be released or held depending on local standards under the new law.
"High-risk" individuals would remain in custody until their arraignment

Not Reformed Enough?

While the new system is designed to be more fair and less reliant on a criminal defendant's bank account, it is not without its critics. Obviously, the bail bond industry isn't pleased with the new law. But even some bail reform advocates aren't pleased with the way the new statute is written. The American Civil Liberties Union withdrew its support for the bill, claiming it gave too much discretion to judges to keep people locked up awaiting trial, and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice contended this version of the bill creates "a substantial likelihood that more people will be incarcerated pretrial than under current law."

How the new law will impact low-income defendants remains to be seen -- the statute doesn't take effect until October 2019.

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