Amid the widespread unrest that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, progressives amplified their calls for sweeping criminal justice reform, and in some states, those demands are being met in ways that some find controversial, to say the least.
According to The Los Angeles Times, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that the practice of keeping defendants behind bars solely because they cannot afford the cost of bail is unconstitutional and that a person’s ability to pay must be considered before bail amounts are set, ending the way in which pretrial detention decisions are commonly made in the state.
The ruling does not amount to an outright ban on the use of cash bail, but the justices did declare that lower court judges are now required to consider the severity of the charges against each defendant as well as their prior criminal history, taking those elements into consideration when setting an affordable bail amount, as the Sacramento Bee explained.
Furthermore, a court is permitted to detain an individual through the use of bail “only if it first finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that no nonfinancial condition of release can reasonably protect” against the risk of flight or to overall public safety, according to the ruling.
The court’s ruling comes on the heels of a November rejection by California voters of a a law designed to end the cash bail system entirely in that state and instead require risk assessments for each and every arrestee, according to Fox News.
Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition said the court’s decision will bring about “a big change in the way the system works,” adding:
The lens of due process is going to be on every bail, because prosecutors are going to have to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, a flight risk or danger.
Criminal justice reform advocates lauded the ruling, and several other stakeholder groups in the state mounted relatively little objection, with Karen Pank, executive director of Chief Probation Officers of California saying, according to Fox News:
Wealth should play no role in the justice system and we will continue to fight for a pretrial system that focuses on safety, fairness and effectiveness.
In a move blasted by victims of violent crime, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed legislation last month making his state the first in the nation to end cash bail entirely, boasting that the move would facilitate a transition “from a system of pretrial detention that prioritizes wealth, to one that prioritizes public safety,” as The Hill reported.
However, amid news that the Los Angeles County Metro public transportation agency voted last week to boost police funding by $36 million in response to a dramatic uptick in crime — less than a year after the L.A. City Council slashed its police budget by $150 million — the wisdom of curtailing the use of cash bail in California certainly remains to be seen.