By LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
Imagine waiting in jail month after month for your trial. A court has determined that you pose minimal threat to public safety, but still you sit in pretrial incarceration. And while you wait, you lose your job, your home, in some cases even your family, all because you simply don’t have the money to post bail.
Nationwide, more than 450,000 people are sitting in local, state and federal jails while they await trial — in essence, serving time before they’re even convicted. The cost is estimated to be as high as $14 billion per year.
Money bail contributes to overcrowding in our jails, has a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, and, yet, has not been shown to improve criminal justice outcomes.
Here in Los Angeles County, our bail system is in serious need of reform. Currently, the county’s primary method of determining whether someone can be released before trial is through money bail. Rather than assessing an individual’s likelihood of appearing in court or relative risk to the safety of the public, we decide if individuals sit in jail or get to go home based solely on their ability to pay.
The L.A. County sheriff estimates that nearly half — 48 percent — of individuals in county jails are being held while they await trial, most often due to the inability to pay bail.
Our system wastes public funds with little proven public safety benefit. There are many steps the county could and should take to make the system more efficient and more equitable. These changes have been implemented in states and counties around the country and have proven effective.
Los Angeles could employ low-cost compliance technologies, like automated calls or SMS text messages to remind people of court dates. Other jurisdictions have demonstrated that this practice increases court appearances, and the difference in cost is gargantuan. Currently, L.A. County pretrial services cost between $2.50 and $5 per person per day. The per-day cost of pretrial incarceration is $177!
The county could expand the use of “cite and release” policies (which allow law enforcement to “cite and release” individuals on misdemeanor charges (instead of arresting and booking them into custody) for non-serious and non-violent felonies.
Currently, L.A. County has a very low rate of pretrial release. The county’s Pretrial Services Division assesses approximately 17 percent of people booked into jail each year. That means judges do not have sufficient evidence to determine whether 83 percent of those booked are appropriate candidates for reduced bail or could be released on their own recognizance.
Most recently, Santa Clara County developed its own validated risk-assessment tool for pretrial release investigations, which provide judges with more substantive, standardized and reliable information on which to base their pretrial release decisions. From its inception in June 2016, Santa Clara County has saved $33 million by releasing 1,400 pretrial defendants. Pretrial release costs Santa Clara $15 to $25 per day as compared to $204 per day for incarceration.
Since initiating these bail reform efforts, Santa Clara has maintained a 95 percent court appearance rate and a 99 percent public safety rate for those defendants released from custody while awaiting trial. Our neighbor to the north demonstrates how a strong pretrial program and a validated assessment tool are critical elements for successful bail reform.
These many efforts that offer alternatives to money bail do not compromise court appearance rates or public safety. It is important for L.A. to examine the county’s current system and develop our own approach to ensuring safe pretrial release. We need a pretrial release system that is responsive to the needs of the criminal justice system, that is fair to individuals accused of crimes, and that mitigates the racial and economic disparities of our current bail system.
With a motion that will come before the county Board of Supervisors Wednesday and is expected to pass unanimously, the county is taking important steps in that direction. I am gratified that this effort has the support of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department as well as prominent advocates for pretrial reform like the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Working together, we can make the system more efficient and equitable.
Sheila Kuehl is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the 3rd District.