California Is Holding Off on Abandoning Cash Bail

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A California law eliminating cash bail, signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown in August, has now been put on hold, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The law was scheduled to take effect in October of this year. Instead, voters will weigh in on it via a referendum on the state's 2020 ballot; the law will only go into effect if it is approved by voters.

The legislation would replace money bail with "risk assessment strategies" that courts could use to assess the merits of imprisoning a defendant before trial.

The three executive directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California issued a joint statement, in which they said the bail industry "hurts families" and is "antithetical to our values of justice, fairness, and racial equity."

But the law is controversial. While the ACLU of Northern California and other advocacy groups take issue with the cash bail system, they also opposed the law due to concerns about the amount of power it would grant judges. As Pacific Standard reported in August:

Originally buoyed by broad support, the legislation lost many key supporters in the final days of its amendment process. In response to amendments that gave judges broad latitude to determine risk, many original public supporters of the bill withdrew their support.

Moreover, as Pacific Standard reported last year, critics of the cash bail system point to research showing that cash bail discriminates against the poor, and poor people of color in particular:

According to a 2015 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, two in five people held in America's jails are behind bars because they cannot afford their bail. The report also notes that 75 percent of people in jail are accused of non-violent crimes, such as shoplifting or minor traffic offenses. There's also evidence of profound racial bias within the cash bail system. The Vera Institute reports that black Americans are jailed at almost four times the rate of their white counterparts.

In California, groups like the ACLU are now supporting new efforts to prevent racial bias in risk assessment, the Times reports. In a budget proposal released last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom earmarked $75 million for the state's judicial council to give to counties for pretrial risk assessment programs.

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