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Yesterday, the California Senate Public Safety Committee voted 5 – 2 to pass Senate Bill 1180 (Hancock) for a floor vote. This bill is a significant piece of legislation that will have a significant impact on the high rates of un-sentenced individuals held in county jails. If the bill continues to proceed in the legislative arc and is signed by the Governor, California counties would have enhanced incentives to utilize best practice risk-assessment tools for determining whether an accused defendant can be released on their own recognizance or whether they must post bail. 

Currently, the inability to post bail has been the largest determinant of keeping individuals in jail before their trial, not their flight risk or assessed danger to local communities as the majority of society believes. There are major ethical and societal concerns to be considered when California has an average daily population of 50,000 individuals in county jails for as long as a year, before they have received a trial, and while they are still presumed innocent until found guilty”. 

Furthermore, the greatest problem that the money-based bail system fails to address is the degree of danger of the pretrial population. In essence, an individual who can afford to post bail is not necessarily more of less dangerous to the community than an individual who cannot afford to post bail. Research indicates that there are many factors that judges and pretrial services should consider when assessing an individuals’ risk to the community and to predict attendance to future court dates. 

The economically discriminatory impact of the bail system has been critiqued for years. More recently, Attorney General Eric Holder remarked in June 2011 at the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice, 

Almost all of these [non-sentenced, pretrial] individuals could be released and supervised in their communities – and allowed to pursue or maintain employment, and participate in educational opportunities and their normal family lives – without risk of endangering their fellow citizens or fleeing from justice.”

What is the human impact of detaining pretrial individuals? They are isolated from their pro-social environment, their children, spouses, supportive family structures, work relationships, etc. The evidence is overwhelming that the best practices that promote long-term public safety after arrest are those that help individuals maintain connections to the positive supports in their lives. 

When a pretrial detainee is held in a county jail for weeks, months, even up to a year before having their trial, it can result in a loss of employment and housing, fragmentation of the familial unit through the dissolution of relationships or custody of their children, termination of their health care benefits for themselves and their dependents and so forth. These collateral consequences of California’s current pretrial system directly impact the individual’s ability for long-term success. Better outcomes for the offender population equates to improved long-term public safety. 

The state legislature should seriously consider Senator Hancock’s proposal for a smart application of evidence-based methodologies for risk assessment. The benefits will be seen both in long-term public safety of local communities, as well as in the long-term success of individual defendants and their families.