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Who's crowding California's jails

According to a new report, California's jails are full of people who can't afford bail.
According to a new report, California's jails are full of people who can't afford bail.
Xomiele/Flickr Creative Commons

California's county jails are overcrowded, and a new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a criminal justice reform think tank based in San Francisco, says much of the blame lies with California's commercial bail bond system. In "The Commercial Bail Industry: Profit or Public Safety?" author Amanda Gullings warns that jails will remain overcrowded until they develop alternatives to monetary bail.

According to the report, a large number of people are sitting in California jails because they can't afford bail. Seventy-one percent of California's jail population is pretrial--meaning, people are locked up in county jail but not because they've been convicted of a crime. There are various reasons these inmates are locked up despite not having been found guilty yet--immigration holds, warrants in other states--and the actual number of bailable inmates sitting  behind bars varies from county to county. 

In Los Angeles County, roughly 33.75 percent of the county's jail inmates could be out of jail if they could afford (or, in some cases, chose to afford) bail, according to a report prepared last month for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD). Another 11.25 percent are being held without bail by a judge. Theoretically, that means Los Angeles could have about 5,500 fewer jail inmates, if those inmates could afford to bail themselves out, or pay for the standard 8-10 percent premium charged by most commercial bail bonds companies.

This population of bailable, unsentenced inmates is becoming a hot topic for sheriff's departments around the state, as prison realignment kicks into gear. Under realignment, a large number of convicted offenders who used to be sent to state prison have become the domain of county sheriff's departments. LASD expects the daily jail population in LA to increase by 7,000 inmates by the end of 2014. 

Steve Whitmore, spokesman for LA Sheriff Lee Baca, says Baca is focused on the bailable population "like a laser beam." Actually doing anything to get that population onto bail alternatives, like ankle bracelet monitoring, is a complicated process, he says. "It's a very difficult negotiation and everyone has to be involved, like the Board of Supervisors."

CJCJ's Gullings says the coming political battle over the pretrial population will be fierce, with the bail industry lobby playing a big role. Between 2000 and 2012, the bail lobby spent $456,480 on political campaigns in California, according to Gullings.

"Right now is a real pivotal moment for the bail industry to sort of undermine the accountability of pretrial services," she says. "Because this is an opportunity for counties to really expand those pretrial services if that’s what they wish to do."

But those in the bail industry insist that bail is still the most effective form of pretrial release. Eric Granof, chief marketing officer for AIA, the largest underwriter of bail bonds in the country, says the bail industry is widely misunderstood because the media perpetuates the "Dog the Bounty Hunter" image of bail agents as just in it for the money. Really, Granof says, they're insurance agents who perform a professional service. Bail, he says, serves its purpose.

"When someone has money on the hook, they’re going to show up,"says Granof. "When they have something on the hook that affects a family member, they’ll show up. When a bail agent has financial responsibility and they’re on the hook, they’re going to make sure that person shows up."

As for political influence, Granof says, "just like any other industry, we have lobbyists, ok? Is it big lobbyists, like the automobile industry or tobacco? It’s nothing like that."

There's a role for pretrial services, Granof says. "Our issue is that we think sometimes it goes a little too far." 

That debate is just at its inception: what to do with the pretrial population to free up jail space for new inmates will be a county-by-county battle in California.