State’s new bail-bond law makes for uncertain future

Add Senate Bill 10 to the list of headscratching laws coming out of Sacramento these days.

Our state’s supposedly well-meaning Legislature is once again determined to prove California should set the course for the rest of the U.S., whether it comes to economic stewardship, carbon emissions, treatment of immigrants or now, bail reform.

Signed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown, SB 10 goes into effect Oct. 1, 2019, making California the first state in the nation to do so. Instead of requiring those who’ve been arrested to pay a fixed dollar amount to be freed prior to trial, the courts will use so-called “pretrial assessment services” to assign a risk level to each individual charged with a felony.

Depending on that risk level, a person would either be denied pretrial release altogether or freed on their own recognizance. Prosecutors reserve the right to file a motion seeking to keep a suspect in custody, and that decision would ultimately rest with a judge.

Those booked on most misdemeanors won’t be subject to the risk assessment unless special circumstances apply.

Don’t get us wrong: The long-standing cash-bail system is fraught with shortcomings. Besides favoring the wealthy, it often enables those charged with serious crimes to avoid trial for years on end while victims and victims’ families suffer and wait for justice. Simply put, when an individual is freed on bail, a seasoned defense attorney can drag out the proceedings interminably.

Agoura’s Gary Haw, the convicted founder of Tan LA, was free on bail for five years before a jury finally heard the facts of his case in 2017 and sent him to prison for molesting underage employees. He is just one of numerous examples of what happens when someone facing years behind bars is left free to live life with few restrictions: There is no incentive to go to trial. Yes, the Constitution guarantees the presumption of innocence—as it should—but how can we ignore cases like these? If these defendants had been judged high-risk due to the severity of their crimes and required to remain in jail prior to trial, more timely resolutions would result, saving taxpayer dollars and putting the speed back into speedy trial. In that sense, SB 10 helps, but we think the bill falls short in other areas.

Our court system is overloaded as it is without having to add a new level of pretrial assessment. And will the state really have the funds to pay costs associated with these changes, as promised in the bill?

Supported by both our local legislators (Henry Stern and Jacqui Irwin), the bill could fail on two fronts: by keeping innocent people in jail longer, and making it easier for guilty people to avoid showing up in court because there’s no bail bondsman to bring them in.

Yes, the bill’s been signed, but let’s demand more revisions. Go back to the drawing board or, better yet, let a much smaller state with less crime give the no-bail system a shot first. We could learn a lot.