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Overcrowded jails, the bail industry, and pretrial alternatives

This month is the Justice Policy Institute (JPI)'s Bail Reform Month. Their national public education campaign provides research showing that "money bail is a failed policy that does not protect public safety" and leads to unnecessary incarceration in local jails. If you have been following criminal justice realignment in California, this issue is of foremost importance.

In California, approximately 71% of the jail population is unsentenced. Many of the detainees are in detention simply because they cannot afford to post bail while they wait for resolution of their cases.  Assessments of their flight risk or risk to public safety are rarely conducted.  Therefore, bail agents accept or refuse detainees based on their ability to pay, not on if they are a risk to public safety.

Furthermore, bail schedules are set in each of the state's 58 counties, differing widely across the state and creating a disparate impact upon the poor and economically constrained populations.  Read more about the influence of the Bail Industry in California in CJCJ's May 2012 publication.

Before criminal justice realignment (AB 109) was implemented, several county jails in California were already overcrowded. Since realignment began in October 2011, even more counties have experienced overcrowding in their local facilities due to the increased numbers of non-serious offenders being housed locally rather than in state prison facilities. Thus, the ability of counties to maximize their use of jail capacity and pretrial alternatives is an essential component of successful realignment strategies.

Investing in pretrial alternatives is not only safer than continuing to rely solely on the bail industry, but it is also more cost-effective and less damaging to the community than keeping individuals in unnecessary detention. Pretrial services can link clients to needed treatment services and allows the client to maintain employment and familial obligations while awaiting resolution of their cases. Overall, the long-term public safety benefits of pretrial services outweigh traditional jail construction options.

This year, Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) authored a bill that would have provided counties with a greater number of tools to reduce their pretrial population. Senate Bill 210 would have given probation departments legal authority to conduct validated risk assessments on the pretrial population to determine which detainees could be safely released under their "own recognizance" (OR).  The bill would have also required judges to consider releasing certain detainees on OR pretrial release, with varying degrees of probation supervision. Unfortunately, this bill had to be pulled before the end of the legislative session due to aggressive opposition by statewide law enforcement associations.

There are other practical measures sheriffs and probation departments could consider when addressing reduction of their jail population. Several Sheriff's departments around the state are proposing expensive jail expansion as a solution to overcrowding. However, this is not the most efficient or effective approach.  For example, Santa Cruz County has implemented several targeted strategies that reduced their pretrial jail population to 20% below the state average.

If you want to learn more about pretrial alternatives to bail, sign up for this webinar: Local Reform in a Realigned Environment on September 27, 2012.  Chief Probation Officer Scott MacDonald, and CJCJ's Kate McCracken will describe Santa Cruz County's approach to reducing its jail population.

Keywords: bail industry, pretrial, Selena Teji, state policy

Posted in Blog, Model Local Practices, Political Landscape

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