California Lawmakers Unveil Bill to Reform Money Bail System

California lawmakers unveiled a bill to reform the state’s money bail system, calling the profit-based status quo an injustice to the poor.

“California’s bail system punishes poor people simply for being poor,” Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) said in announcing the bill on Monday, the first day of the 2017 legislative session. “In many cases, if you have enough money to pay your bail, you can get out of jail regardless of whether you are a danger to the public or a flight risk. But if you’re poor and are not a flight risk or a danger to the public, you are forced to stay in jail even when the charge is a misdemeanor. That’s not justice.”

Details of the California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, Assembly Bill 42, are still being hammered out. Here’s a link to the language so far. But Bonta, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and other sponsoring the bill said it would reduce the number of people locked up before trial.

Under state law, monetary bail is set based on a local fee schedule that factors in the severity of the alleged crime. Defendants can pay the assigned bail, pay a nonrefundable 10 percent fee to a bail bonds company or await trial behind bars.

About 63 percent of inmates in California jails, 45,000 in all, are pretrial detainees. In Santa Clara County, that figure is much higher—more than 70 percent.

At a press conference organized by Bonta and Hertzberg Monday, San Jose resident Ato Walker spoke about the price his family paid for a 2013 arrest on charges that didn’t even stick. Accused of resisting arrest, his bail was initially set to $165,000 before getting bumped down to $85,000. He spent five days in jail until his mom—a U.S. Post Office retiree—pulled $8,500 from her 401K to bail him out.

“We’ve lived poor, scraping by all that time,” Walker, a 37-year-old father of one, said. “For her to take that money so that I could be there for my family, so that I could support my family … I was really happy that I was able to get that support.”

After several months, the District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Walker. A year later, he sued the San Jose Police Department for excessive force. The case ended with a $30,000 settlement that allowed him to pay his mom back.

“But not everybody has that opportunity,” Walker clarified at the presser. “So I want to thank all these legislators for stepping up and making sure that all us people who grew up poor and live poor can have some type of justice.”

Santa Clara County recently took measures to move away from the money bail system. The alternative, which has been in use locally for about five years, is a computerized risk assessment. The software factors a person’s criminal history, record of showing up to court hearings and other variables to determine a person’s flight and safety risk.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been pushing for statewide, about 80 percent of jail deaths occur in pretrial custody. Of those, about a quarter are suicides. Reformers also point out that pretrial incarceration increases the likelihood that a person pleads guilty. Bearing the brunt of inequities in the cash bail system—and other policies that lead to mass incarceration—are communities of color.

“This is a racial justice issue,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the press event. “I think that’s self-evident. This is an economic justice issue. … This is a profoundly important moment in criminal justice reform in this state and, I would argue, this country.”

Debate over bail reform has taken place in legislatures and courtrooms throughout the nation in recent years. Two lawsuits filed in federal courts in California have taken aim against statewide bail practices in Sacramento and San Francisco.

“They were sued—and I’m glad they were sued—for their money bail system,” Newsom said. “There are seven states that have been sued, municipalities across the country that that have been sued to reform. It’s unfortunate that’s what it takes, but here we are, and it’s a very good and positive thing.”

Also appearing at the press conference Monday were members of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a civil rights group that has worked on local reforms to the bail bonds industry. Now, it appears that this county will be held up as a model for other jurisdictions looking for alternatives to cash-based bail.

“We need evidence-based reforms that accurately assess someone’s risk to the public and their likelihood of showing up for their court hearings,” Bonta said. “Right now, money bail is just an indicator of a person’s wealth.”

Past reform efforts in this state have failed in the face of fierce lobbying by the surety bail industry. But a growing number of states have limited use of for-profit bail, including New Jersey, Colorado, Delaware Virginia, West Virginia and Hawaii.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. The idiocy of California’s runaway liberalism when it comes to criminal justice would be laughable if it wasn’t going to have such serious consequences. Crime is already rising, and will continue to do so as prisons and jails are emptied haphazardly. Inevitably, enough awful acts will be committed by those who should’ve been locked up that the pendulum will begin to swing back toward the side of reason, but not before more of the innocent have been badly victimized, just as they were during the era of young Jerry Brown and Rose Bird.

  2. I’m thinking Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico would be smart to put up an electrified fence.

  3. The language of the proposed bill is comical. It is a bill declaring the intent to write a bill about bail. There is no proposal on the table or legislative language.

    The journalists who have covered this meaningless so called bill should be ashamed of themselves. It won’t be the bail industry lobbyists who get this bill to go nowhere, it will be the reality that this bill is plainly worthless that takes care of that.

    Let me know when there is an actual proposal. These politicians can’t even make a suggestion to their own colleagues. Be quiet until you can do your job. For those who say this is how legislation is made, I would say sure it is, but most “bills” go nowhere and this one is going nowhere fast.

  4. Please read about Illinois the only large population state with no cash bail. Inmates now have to pay the full 10% to the jail time be released. Inmates pay more now in Illinois. And Illinois is the proud home of the murder capital of the U.S. Locals call Chicago .CHIRAQ
    Cost reductions for the poor are a lie. State just wants the money like legal pot.
    No private bail Illinois has been a nightmare.
    California has nearly 4 times the population as Illinois can you imagine the murder rate in California with no private bail.
    Private bail is one the last flood gates AGAINST CRIME.
    I am a proud bail bondsman in California.
    In a private free bail market. Completion keeps prices reasonable for most clients. Proposition 47 has already increased crime significantly.
    This bill if passed will only add to criminal behavior.
    And minorities are most of the increased murder rates in Illinois!!!
    Be careful California don’t be fooled by politicians!

  5. Private bail also makes sense in the simple fact that bail bond companies steer clear of defendants who are court flight risks. Reducing the number of violating reoffenders from streets.
    If defendants run from court the bondsman also losses the full amount of the bail.
    A symbiotic relationship
    Bail amounts are determined by the severity of the charges prior history and flight risk.

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