California Supreme Courtroom sides with civil rights teams

In a landmark statement hailed as a victory for civil rights activists and criminal justice reformers, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that judges should consider an arrested person’s solvency when setting bail and a higher standard for detaining people before trial must enforce reasons for public safety.

The High Court’s unanimous decision aims to ensure that no one is behind bars while waiting for trial just because they cannot afford to leave bail. And it reduces the role of bail in deciding who will be released from prison by instructing judges to give more consideration to non-cash conditions like electronic surveillance programs and drug or alcohol treatment to ensure defendants can be released safely.

“The common practice of only conditioning freedom according to whether an arrested person can afford bail is unconstitutional,” wrote Judge Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, according to the court. “We believe that if a financial situation is required, the court must consider the detainee’s ability to pay the specified amount of bail – and may not be able to effectively detain the detainee just because the detainee lacked the means, to leave a deposit. ”

David Ball, a law professor specializing in criminal proceedings at the University of Santa Clara, described the judgment as “a gigantic, momentous decision.”

Ball said he assumed that the court release arguments in California courtrooms, which previously focused on what bail was appropriate for each defendant, would instead focus on public safety.

Judges still have the power to hold a defendant without bail if they believe the person is a security risk. The opinion is that judges must provide “clear and convincing evidence” to determine that the accused must be kept behind bars for the protection of the public, which Ball said would lead to more extensive discussions about whether a person is at risk.

“You can no longer circumvent the decision to arrest someone for reasons of public security by placing an unaffordable bail,” said Ball.

The High Court opinion is the culmination of a longstanding legal challenge to California’s cash bail system by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps.

Bail opponents have long argued that the system can mean that poor defendants, who pose low risk to society and are innocent until proven guilty, can end up behind bars for months or years for not having enough money to save. Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, have joined calls to remove bail in recent years.

Defendants could lose their jobs, homes, or even custody of their children if locked up while their cases are up, lawyers say, and time behind bars increases pressure to negotiate with prosecutors rather than waiting to get theirs Bring case to court.

“The injustice of our bail system in this state has been devastating,” said Gina Clayton-Johnson, executive director and founder of the Essie Justice Group in Oakland. “Bail was the mechanism that made mass incarceration possible.”

The state Supreme Court case unfolded separately from another attempt to overhaul California’s cash bail system, which voters rejected last November. That electoral measure, Proposition 25, would have confirmed a state law passed in 2018 to end the cash bail system and replace it with a law where judges would decide who should be released based on an assessment of their risk to the public .

The bail bond industry and law enforcement agencies that opposed the proposal argued that asking the defendants for cash was the best way to ensure they appear on future court dates.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling does not completely overturn the cash bail system. But Jeffrey Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said the ruling would likely mean fewer defendants will have to bail and those who do will have to put up less money. Still, Clayton said, “We are ready to live with it.”

California’s Chief Probation Officers, an organization whose members will see a significantly increased workload as custodians of pre-trial oversight and oversight for the vast majority of state lawsuits, said Thursday it was on the job.

“Following today’s decision, probation departments across the state will continue to work to develop programs that eliminate the role of wealth or financial status in pre-trial release,” executive director Karen Pank said in a statement.

The Supreme Court opinion upheld the so-called Humphrey appeal court ruling in 2018, which was blocked until last August. The appeal ruling resulted in changes to bail bail procedures in courts across the state, and proponents of bail reform said more changes are likely to come after the Supreme Court’s deliberations.

The case revolved around the imprisonment of a man named Kenneth Humphrey, a retired shipyard worker who waited behind bars for more than a year after he was accused of hiring his elderly neighbor in a residential hotel in San Francisco for $ 5 and a bottle Having robbed Cologne in 2017.

A judge initially set Humphrey’s loan at $ 600,000 – far more than he could afford on bail – after using the San Francisco bail scheme. In this document, defendants are assigned a standard bail amount for each charge and for factors such as previous convictions.

Humphrey, 66, who lives in Vallejo, was released from prison following the appeals court ruling. The criminal case against him remains unsolved.

The next question, Ball and others say, is how the ruling will play out locally, given the different attitudes of judges across the state’s 58 counties.

Raj Jayadev, co-founder of South Bay’s Silicon Valley De-Bug civil rights group, said proponents plan to post workers in courtrooms across California to watch hearings and ensure judges uphold the decision. While Jayadev and other proponents were largely satisfied with the ruling, he said it still gives the judges too much authority to decide who can be detained before the trial.

Ball also noted that judges have their own discretion about what constitutes “affordable” bail and assess the risk a defendant poses to the public, which could lead to more legal challenges – unless the legislature does State intervenes and formulates these processes in the law.

“The judges may not agree on what the acceptable risk is,” said Ball. “The court said here are the principles but they don’t have final rules.”

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