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Build bigger jails or invest in community-based alternatives?

In 2010, 71 percent of California's jail population were those offenders who were unsentenced and awaiting resolution of their cases.  This figure not only exceeds the pretrial detainee national average, but also represents a major shift away from the traditional use of jails where inmates are detained as a form of punishment.  However, many of these pretrial detainees are not being held because they have been determined to be a danger to society or represent a flight risk. Rather, they remain in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.

When an individual is detained in jail they have few options for pretrial release: to bond out through a commercial bail bondsman, release on own recognizance, or be released under the supervision of a publicly funded pretrial service program.  Unfortunately, not every county has a pretrial service program, and if that is the case, bonding out might be the individual's only option for pretrial release if they are not eligible for release on own recognizance.  However, with high unemployment rates and the current economic hardships many Californians are facing, it is becoming more difficult and less common for the poor and middle-class to be able to raise enough funds to post bail.

Bail bondsmen across the state have made it their priority to work in direct opposition against publicly funded pretrial service agencies.  The bail industry has worked ardently to undermine the accountability and funding of pretrial release programs and have even hired their own lobbyists to advocate for legislation limiting the use of pretrial service programs at both the state and local levels.  While these policies might be profitable for the bail industry because they preserve the overcrowding jail population, it comes at a high cost to California taxpayers and is a danger to public safety.

With the passing of The Safety Realignment Act (AB 109), the state officially took ownership that the outdated practices of over-incarceration had failed to lower recidivism rates and ensure public safety.  Moreover, the state also acknowledged that individual counties are better equipped to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders than the state prison system.  To ignore the large pretrial detainee population in California's already overcrowded jails by not developing alternatives to incarceration would only serve to replicate at the county level the same problems the state prison system has been facing for the past several years.

It is time for the California criminal justice system to stop perpetuating the myth that the commercial bail system saves taxpayer dollars; in reality the cost of jail overcrowding caused by detainees who cannot afford to post bail, far exceeds any cost-savings for the few individuals who are able to privately fund their bail release.  The primary purpose of AB 109 was to acknowledge that state prison should only be reserved for those offenders convicted of serious crimes and to motivate counties to implement and develop programs that are alternatives to incarceration.  However, many counties are now faced with the dilemma: build bigger jails to accommodate this new "non-non-non" population or invest in community-based alternatives? Rather than build bigger jails, CJCJ encourages counties to work towards solutions to reduce pretrial detainee jail populations, which is outlined in greater detail in, "The Commercial Bail Industry: Profit or Public Safety," a publication released today.  Counties must reduce the over-use of the money-bail system that perpetuates jail overcrowding, and instead make a commitment to utilize risk and needs assessment tools, and pretrial service programs to alleviate jail bed space without jeopardizing long-term public safety.  

~ Amanda Gullings
CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: bail industry, community corrections, jails, pretrial

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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