Almost two years ago, California voters rejected Proposition 25 by a large margin, telling lawmakers in unmistakable terms they were not in favor of Senate Bill 10, which replaced cash bail with risk assessments – low, medium and high – for suspects awaiting trial.
Ending cash bail was supposed to be a “transformational shift away from valuing private wealth and toward protecting public safety,” said SB 10’s lead sponsor Sen. Robert Hertzberg. So, what have Californians missed in rejecting 2020’s Proposition 25? Has there been a lapse in “protecting public safety” because zero cash bail was rebuffed by voters?
Doesn’t seem to be the case.
In Yolo County, where a temporary zero-bail policy established by the state Judicial Council in April 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic was extended, 70% of offenders who were given “get-out-of-jail” cards were arrested later and charged with new crimes.
“Of the 595 individuals released without bail in Yolo County between 2020 and 2021, 420 were rearrested,” Fox News reports.
Were the re-offenders charged with petty crimes? Apparently so. But a statement from Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig indicates some committed “violent offenses such as robbery and murder.”
“There is simply no rational public safety-related basis to continue such a practice post-pandemic, especially in light of the increasing violent crime rates across California,” he said.
There was also the death of Kate Tibbits, killed in her Sacramento home a year ago. The Sacramento Police Department charged Troy Davis in her slaying. Media reports indicate that he was out on zero bail at the time after being arrested for car theft, despite being a convicted felon who should not have been granted release under the temporary zero-bail policy. Did the rush to set up the pandemic-era, zero-bail regime transform the courts into processing centers from which everyone walked?
It’s anybody’s guess as to how trusting a charged suspect’s promise to appear in court would improve public safety. Sure, supporters of this zero-bail policy offered many arguments. Needed criminal justice reform was mentioned, as was the creation of early release equality by removing financial means for earning bail. But they missed the mark in defending the policy as a means to reduce crime.
Sen. Hertzberg complained that under a cash-bail system, “wealthy people can simply write big checks” for pretrial release. The Prop. 25 official voter information guide noted that supporters believe “now is the time to replace California’s money bail system with one based on safety and fairness.” They called the current system “unfair” and “costly.”
The only attempt in the voter information guide to argue that SB10 would improve public safety was the claim that zero-cash bail “means decisions will be based on risk to our safety, not a person’s ability to pay,” because “judges will determine whether a person poses a risk of committing new crimes or fleeing when deciding who is held pretrial.” Since decisions wouldn’t “be made based on the size of the person’s wallet,” communities would be “safer by ensuring jail space is reserved for those who are actually dangerous and shouldn’t be released, instead of the poor.”
The results in Yolo County show that promise was either impossible to keep, or it was a cynical ploy to start with.
Despite the outcome of Prop. 25, lawmakers almost immediately tried to override the people with Senate Bill 262, of which Hertzberg was again the lead author. Had it become law, it would have prohibited “costs relating to the conditions of release on bail from being imposed on persons released on bail or on their own recognizance.” But it failed just as the session ended.
That’s unlikely to be the end of it, though. The fact that the bill was pulled right after the Tibbits killing, then brought back near the end of the session in an amended form, is a clear signal that its supporters are determined to unleash their odd version of public safety on the public.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.