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As you walk down Bryant Street in San Francisco, there are many neon-lit signs advertising for available bail services increasing as you move closer to the Hall of Justice. San Francisco is the birthplace of the bail industry, but in recent years, the county has begun to explore pretrial services that are not driven by commercial enterprise. Options for pretrial release may not seem to be of importance to you, until you need one.

In an era of Realignment, there has been an increased examination of the commercial bail industry and pretrial services. With an average un-sentenced jail population of approximately 70% in California and many counties struggling with jail overcrowding, this is warranted. Criticisms of the commercial bail industry date back to the early 1920s and have largely remained the same: questioning whether commercial bail ensures public safety and suggesting the industry discriminates against the poor.

In California, the presiding county Judge and other select Judges set the bail schedules without public input or comment. Bail is based on the severity of the alleged offense, but varies by each of the 58 counties. Once the bail is set, commercial bail companies choose which of the detainees who can afford to post bail they want to assist. If you cannot afford bail then you remain in custody until your hearing. This can of course lead to many unintended consequences such as loss of employment, housing, and childcare issues. 

Because the bail industry does not conduct a risk assessment regarding the detainee’s potential threat to public safety, many low-level offenders and in some cases innocent people, remain detained unnecessarily. Many believe this has exacerbated jail overcrowding, and contributed to inequities in the justice system across socioeconomic and geographic lines.

Recently the Little Hoover Commission has began an examination of this matter hosting one public hearing in November 2012 and another hearing this week. It is clear that access to pretrial release remains a complex issue with a variety of stakeholders contributing to the dialogue. One recommendation made by a variety of organizations is the increased use of pretrial services. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, pretrial services are operated by nonprofit organizations, Probation and Sheriff’s Departments. Pretrial service programs are designed to provide appropriate community-based supervision for defendants who are low public safety and flight risks and utilize validated and objective criteria to identify eligible individuals. 

Use of pretrial services, as Santa Cruz County has done, can reduce unnecessary incarceration and promotes better utilization of jail bed space. This is increasingly important following Realignment, where jails that are under a federal cap are releasing high-risk individuals due to reaching capacity. Pretrial services allows locally jurisdictions another method to mange their jail population while promoting long-term public safety. 

Implementing or enhancing pretrial services is not a complete solution to this complex matter; however, as counties face increased responsibility for offenders locally this is one tool to explore that is driven by a risk and needs assessment and not by the amount of money in your bank account.