California Supreme Court Eliminates Cash Bail for Defendants Who Can’t Pay

Defendants in California no longer have to worry about being locked up for a lack of funds. The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously on March 25 that it is unconstitutional to keep defendants jailed because they are too poor to meet bail requirements.

“The common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the court, ruling that it violated both state and federal protections.

“Other conditions of release — such as electronic monitoring, regular check-ins with a pretrial case manager, community housing or shelter, and drug and alcohol treatment — can in many cases protect public and victim safety as well as assure the arrestee’s appearance at trial.”

The decision has been hailed by reformers as a critical step in ending criminal justice system discrimination against poor and marginalized groups. Judges may now only hold defendants when there is “clear and convincing” evidence that they represent a danger to the community or a flight risk.  You can expect to see Judges and prosecutors taking a much closer look at this issue moving forward.

State voters had previously rejected an attempt by legislators to minimize the use of cash bail. After the court’s ruling, some of those legislators indicated they would continue to fight for even stronger reforms.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) said Thursday that he would continue to promote a bill that would set zero bail for minor offenses and reduce the rate of return for bail bonds companies.

He applauded the court decision, saying it would be incorporated in the legislation, but argued that lawmakers should do more “to take the usury out of the system.”

“We can make it clear that people charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes cannot be detained prior to trial,” he said in an interview.

Bail industry advocates, meanwhile, said the court’s ruling strikes a middle ground between the efforts of the legislature and the status quo.

According to the Times:

Albert Ramirez, general counsel of the Golden State Bail Agents Assn., said the no-bail law voters rejected would have killed the industry, but it could survive the requirements set by the California Supreme Court.

Though profits will be reduced, “we can live with it,” Ramirez said.

Those who can afford bail will continue to post it, and bail amounts for others may now come down as a result of the ruling, he said. Bail in California has been “ridiculously high,” he said, and the industry recognizes that.

In the past, California judges have based bail decisions on a set schedule and defendants’ criminal records and the seriousness of the charged offenses, without considering whether the accused could afford bail. That left thousands of defendants behind bars because of their financial predicaments.

Bail schedules will remain, and people who are arrested can continue to post the required amounts, Ramirez said. But the accused are entitled to bail hearings within 48 hours after arrest and can argue to a judge that they cannot afford the set amounts.

California’s move follows several other states that recently moved to eliminate cash bail in many cases, including Illinois. Judges will still retain the ability to require ankle bracelets and other monitoring tools.  This change in the law will open the door for experienced criminal defense lawyers to seek bail reductions and OR releases for their clients where appropriate.  This will also empower some defendants with limited resources to retain an experienced lawyer rather than exhaust all funds on bail.   Our lawyers at the Goldstein Law Group are prepared for this change in law and will always make the strongest arguments possible to ensure our clients remain out of custody.