As California lawmakers move toward overhauling California’s money-based bail system, local officials say the existing system holds suspects accountable for making all of their court appearances.
Late last year, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced two bills known as the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017. The bill claims the state’s pretrial system unfairly jails low-income defendants who can’t afford to pay bail.
Local officials say that's not the case in Kings County.
The proposed law would require courts to release defendants held for misdemeanor charges unless doing so poses a threat to public safety, or if the person is unlikely to make court appearances.
Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said recent legal reforms have already achieved that. In 2011, AB-109 shifted nonviolent offenders from state prisons to local jails. Proposition 47, adopted by California voters in 2014, reduced certain felony theft and narcotics crimes to misdemeanors.
“They’re really focusing on those folks who we already release,” Fagundes said of the proposed changes.
Many misdemeanor offenders are already cited and released with a notice to appear in court, Fagundes said. In other cases, judges may release suspects on their “own recognizance,” which is a written promise to appear for all court hearings.
The reform bills claim the current system causes people who can’t pay bail to lose their jobs, income and even plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.
In a statement released in December 2016, Hertzberg said the current money-based system forces people who have not been convicted of a crime to remain in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
“The current cash bail system is the modern equivalent of debtor’s prison – it criminalizes poverty, pure and simple – and that’s not right,” Hertzberg said.
When a person is arrested and booked into the jail for a crime, bail is initially set based on a countywide bail schedule. If a defendant can’t afford bail, they may ask a judge to reduce it at their arraignment or at a special bail hearing.
Fagundes said Kings County judges will typically reduce bail or release defendants on their own recognizance if remaining in jail would cause a financial hardship.
“The judges by and large will let people out if they need to keep their job,” Fagundes said. “I don’t know what they’re doing in Los Angeles.”
Bail is refunded, minus administrative fees, after the case has been resolved and the person has attended all required court appearances.
Defendants who can’t afford the full bail amount may use a bail bond agency. The agency issues a bond for the full amount in exchange for a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent of the bail amount.
Eddie Brieno, a Hanford-based bail bondsman, said taking money out of the pretrial process will likely lead to more missed court appearances and more arrest warrants for failure to appear. Brieno said state and local law enforcement doesn’t have the resources to actively search for everyone who skips a court appearance.
“It’ll be thousands and thousands of warrants out there,” Brieno said. “Every other person is going to have a warrant.”
When a client misses a court appearance, Brieno said, the bonding agency has 180 days to return them to the court. Brieno said that usually involves hiring an investigator, commonly known as skip tracers or bounty hunters, to find the person and bring them back to court.
Clients who are considered a high flight risk may be required to have someone cosign for the bond. If the defendant fails to appear in court, Brieno said, the financial obligation will prompt the cosigner to find the person, too.
“If they skip on one of our bails, we’re going to be out there looking for them,” Brieno said.
Failure to find the person within 180 days results in forfeited bail, meaning the bonding agency won’t get its money back.
Fagundes said monetary bail presents a problem when a high-level drug dealer or violent offender has access to large amounts of ill-gotten cash. State law allows prosecutors to ask a judge to consider the source of bail money before releasing a suspect.
“You take a rich drug dealer, he’s got $1 million to post bail,” Fagundes said.
Brieno said he recently worked with a defendant who was being held on $90,000 bail. The person, who was considered a high-flight risk because he lived out of the area, ultimately decided to pay the full $90,000 rather than pay $9,000 for a bond.
“The bail system sometimes helps the rich guy, but that’s very few people,” Brieno said
Brieno said the bail system is much more equal than it was when he entered the bond business almost 40 years ago. Defendants formerly had to pay for bonds with cash. Now, bonding agencies commonly allow defendants to buy bonds on credit.
For example, Brieno said, a person arrested for a crime that carries bail of $20,000 would have to pay $2,000 for a bond. If the person can only afford to pay $500, they could pay the smaller amount and make monthly payments toward the balance.
“We’re here to help people who don’t have the money,” Brieno said.