Crime & Justice

LA County opens review of bail system that hurts the poor

Thousands of people languish in Los Angeles County jails because they can't afford to make bail, according to data provided to KPCC by the Sheriff's Department.
Thousands of people languish in Los Angeles County jails because they can't afford to make bail, according to data provided to KPCC by the Sheriff's Department.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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In a move long sought by civil rights activists, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Wednesday ordered a comprehensive review of the county’s bail system.

“Getting out on bail correlates much more to a person’s ability to pay, than to any likelihood of appearing in court or relative risk to the safety of the public,” Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis said in their motion. “Many people remain in jail awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford bail, often losing their jobs.”

The five-member board unanimously supported the motion.

On average, 6,482 county jail inmates were awaiting trial during the fourth quarter of 2016, according to data provided to KPCC by the sheriff’s department. In other words, they were accused but not yet convicted of a crime.

Judges deemed it too risky to release 1,785 of those inmates and denied them bail, according to the data.

The judges set bail for the remaining 4,697 inmates because, the judges ruled, they did not pose a threat to the community. The inmates remained behind bars because they or their families couldn’t come up with the few thousand dollars in cash or property for bail.

“Some of the people most disadvantaged are the homeless, pregnant women, mentally ill,” L.A. County Chief Probation Officer Terri MacDonald told county supervisors.

The mean amount of bail for an inmate in L.A. County jail is $500,000, according to the Sheriff’s data. Bail guidelines are established by Superior Court judges and published annually in the Felony Bail Schedule.

To be released, inmates or their families typically hand over 10 percent of the amount in cash or property to a bail bond agent, who acts as a surety.

More than a dozen bail bond agents showed up to the supervisors meeting to warn against ending the cash bail system. Some said serious criminals might end up getting released.

“People arrested with 50 keys [kilograms] of cocaine, arrested with weapons, rape — they’re walking out the back door,” Maggie Kreins of the California Bail Agents Association said, referring to reforms in New Jersey, which included a shift away from demanding cash bail from most defendants.

Civil rights groups argued inmates in Los Angeles should also be released based on an evaluation of their criminal history and threat to the community – not their wealth.

“Reform is long overdue, and reform has occurred successfully in other jurisdictions,” said attorney Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Acting Public Defender for Los Angeles County Kelly Emling said the current system has a “coercive effect” on people who are unable to make bail. They are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they may not have committed in order to get out of jail, she argued.

Bail reform is hardly a new idea, Emling said, pointing to testimony by then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Every year in this country, thousands of persons are kept in jail for weeks and even months following arrest,” Kennedy testified, according to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights website.

“They are not yet proven guilty. They may be no more likely to flee than you or I,” Kennedy said. “But nonetheless, most of them must stay in jail because, to be blunt, they cannot afford to pay for their freedom."

Other states provide examples of ways in which bail systems can be reformed, according to Kuehl and Solis. Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois have all banned for-profit bail bonds businesses.

In Sacramento, State Senator Robert Hertzberg has introduced legislation designed to reduce the number of people who are held in jails because they cannot afford bail.

L.A. county supervisors asked county counsel, sheriff’s and probation officials to review the bail system and report back in 120 days.

The review is to include looking at best practices for establishing evidence-based risk assessment tools that provide "an accurate prediction" of the likelihood of someone to appear in court after they have been released.