Bail reform ‘a step forward’ … depending
STOCKTON — For the past four years, individuals booked into the San Joaquin County Jail have undergone a pretrial assessment to determine if they should be released on their own recognizance or retained in custody while their case moves through the court process. Though bail still is required in many instances, the pretrial assessment is a step toward removing a defendant’s finances from the equation of whether or not he or she should be free from custody during the court process in San Joaquin County.
The pretrial-assessment system has drawn praise from an array of interested parties, including District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar, Public Defender Miriam Lyell, Sheriff Steve Moore and local political activist Sammy Nunez.
“It’s a huge success,” Nunez, the executive director of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, said last week.
Though the bail system still exists in San Joaquin County, local proponents say the pretrial assessments give the county a leg up as local governments statewide begin to prepare for the dissolution of California’s bail system 13 months from now.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the new bail-ending law into effect last week. Pretrial assessments, already in place in San Joaquin County, will be put into place statewide.
Still, the new law in its final form is drawing mixed reviews, at best. Bail bondsmen see their industry being threatened. And interested organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU say the law doesn’t go far enough in ensuring equal treatment for the rich and the poor, and for people of color and whites.
Local individuals weighed in last week.
Stephanie James, San Joaquin County Chief Probation Officer:
“Using a validated pretrial risk assessment tool will keep those who are at high risk in custody while going (through the court system), and will keep low-risk offenders with their families,” James said. “We think it’ll be better for public safety because it’s based on risk, not how much money they have.”
James is the local expert on pretrial risk assessments. Her office began using them in 2014-15, and she provided the most recent assessment data, for 2016-17, when 1,079 individuals were placed on pretrial monitoring while their cases wound through the courts:
‒ 92.3 percent of those released on their own recognizance attended all their court appearances.
‒ 97.2 percent did not have a new arrest.
D.A. Tori Verber Salazar:
She said any system that removes or reduces economics as a factor in who remains in custody and who doesn’t is a move in the right direction.
“It was a mistake to be driven by the economics of an individual,” she said. ”(The new system) is designed to preserve public safety.”
Ralph Lee White, bail bondsman:
The former city councilman says bail schedules in California are too high, and that even if it hurts his business, he is in favor of any change that will lead to increased equity.
“Take your ordinary black, brown, Mexican or poor white person: They can’t make the bail,” White said. “Rich people know people. The average white person has a cousin or uncle or best friend (who can help with bail) … all of those connections. White people have them, black people don’t.”
Outgoing Sheriff Steve Moore:
“Basically everything in the new law, we’re already doing,” he said. “The pretrial assessment has been working very well. … Chief James has invited other jurisdictions to see how we do it.”
Incoming Sheriff Pat Withrow:
“We already have risk assessments in place,” he said. “That gives us a head start in putting this into place.”
Withrow added that the 13-month period before the law takes effect “will give us a little time to hopefully work out some of the bugs. Hopefully, it’s fair for everyone else and safe for our citizens.”
San Joaquin County NAACP President Bobby Bivens:
Judges under the new system will have too much discretion over who is held in custody and who is released on his or her own recognizes, Bivens said.
He added that with bail no longer an option, those retained in custody after undergoing their pretrial assessment may end up spending just as long as ever in jail while their case slowly proceeds through the court process.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t get accomplished what we have been after so long, and that’s to not hold people in jail … (if) they’re not a risk to the public,” Bivens said.
Vice Mayor Elbert Holman, a retired law enforcement officer:
“What I have a concern about is the assessment matrix they plan on putting together: How will it be put together?” Holman said. “That’s really the key to whole thing.
“On the one hand, opponents say bail adversely affects the poor. I agree with that. At the same time, the matrix they set up could (still) affect the poor. I just hope they have input from a lot of diverse people as they put the matrix together.”
Miriam Lyell, Public Defender:
“I think it is a good step forward,” she said. “The money bail system of justice created an unequal system. Money bail had nothing to do with ensuring whether or not you would return to court or whether or not you were a risk to the public.”
Sammy Nunez, Fathers & Families:
Though he believes the newly approved state system still leaves too much power in the hands of judges, he echoed the prevailing view that the current system being phased out is driven too much by economics.
“There’s a significant amount of people in (jail) that pose no threat to public safety,” Nunez said. “In the state of California with the bail system that we currently have, it’s better to be rich and guilty than innocent and poor.”
Presiding Judge Linda Lofthus:
The Record sought an interview. Instead, Adrianne Forshay, the spokeswoman for San Joaquin County Superior Court, issued a statement.
″(Senate Bill) 10, a comprehensive reform of the bail system, is being evaluated on a county and state level,” Forshay wrote. “The court intends to fully implement the procedures developed therein. In addition, California courts will receive guidance and direction from the Judicial Council. However, a judge cannot discuss his/her views on a specific piece of legislation and how he/she intends to implement said legislation.”