Overcrowding is a problem in county jails across the state, and it’s only going to get worse as counties become responsible for more and more offenders. One way in which some are dealing with the crowd, is in changing the manner in which they determine who is released pre-trial and who is detained.
The vast majority of people in California county jails are not being punished for a crime; they are awaiting trial and can’t afford the bail that has been set. This is true for both offenders who are high-risk and those who likely wouldn’t cause any problems if released.
The reasons for this are multiple but largely rest on the state’s bail schedules. A judge can use a variety of information to determine someone’s bail eligibility and amount, but many resort to the state bail schedules—which prescribe a certain amount for a certain offense, regardless of other factors. This means someone with an extensive criminal history and drug addiction could get the same bail as someone who is facing a first time criminal charge in California.
Instead, counties are now looking at evidence based bail determinations, using a variety of factors to determine if a person will return for court or if they pose a risk to the community if released. Some are also requiring supervision in lieu of cash bails.
This means you could be put under supervision of the court but allowed to return home. Similar to probation, offenders are required to abide by certain terms and to stay out of trouble. If they are unable to do this, they can be returned to the jail pending trial.
These methods don’t only save the state money in incarceration costs and space, they allow defendants to continue on with their normal life, supporting their families and maintaining their place within the community—things that are known to reduce incidents of recidivism.
Of course there are opponents to this practice, those who believe risk assessments will lead to judges releasing the wrong inmates, calling the assessments “guesses”. Obviously, these people have never known anyone accused of a criminal offense or been accused themselves. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the current bail schedules often lead to poor judgment calls and a pauper’s prison.
When someone is accused of a criminal offense, they want to know that they will be treated fairly, from the arrest, to bail determinations, up to sentencing. While our constitutional rights are in place to ensure this fairness exists, practices of the criminal courts don’t always seem fair or just.