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California bail reform lurches forward

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Tuesday that he would not appeal a recent state appeals court ruling ordering a new bail hearing for a man held on $350,000 bail in San Francisco while awaiting trial for robbery.

Becerra’s decision came as rallies were held across the state seeking reform of the courts’ money bail system. By allowing the Jan. 25 ruling to stand, Becerra has effectively ensured that the state’s bail system must be reformed to take a defendant’s ability to pay into account and to consider monetary alternatives.

Becerra said in a statement:

“We must continue to pursue changes in our bail system to ensure it’s rooted in principles of fairness and prioritizes public safety for all. … As the Court notes, this is going to require legislative changes and additional resources. Decisions regarding who should remain in jail while awaiting trial should be based on their danger to the public, not dollars in their pocket.”

The appeals court case involved San Francisco resident Kenneth Humphrey, 63, a retired shipyard laborer who was arrested for robbery last May. Police arrested him after he allegedly followed his 79-year-old neighbor into his apartment, threatened to place a pillowcase over his head and stole $7 and a bottle of cologne, according to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

He sought to be released on his own recognizance because of his age, his long ties to San Francisco and because he was unemployed and indigent and because he had not missed a court appearance in 14 years.

But prosecutors sought bail of $600,000, based on the state’s bail schedule, and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Joseph Quinn agreed. The San Francisco public defender’s office argued that the bail was excessive and that Humphrey was not a public safety risk, but Quinn only lowered it to $350,000.

The appeals court eventually found that Humphrey’s ability to pay must be taken into account when setting bail, as people accused of crimes are entitled to bail unless there is clear and convincing evidence that they pose a risk to public safety. Setting bail higher than they can afford effectively jails the defendant for being poor.

The appeals court judges wrote in their decision:

“It will be hard, perhaps impossible, for judicial officers to fully rectify the bail process without greater resources than our trial courts now possess.”

Statewide legislation is already under consideration to reform the state’s bail process, but the ruling found that trial court judges have a responsibility under the state constitution to make changes in how bail is set.

Advocates for bail reform held rallies throughout the state Tuesday, including in San Francisco, where supporters gathered outside the Hall of Justice.

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office said that more than 60 percent of people detained in California jails are incarcerated because they couldn’t afford the high bails.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement:

“The Humphrey decision is a game changer for Californians and a major crack in the foundation for the exploitive cash bail industry. … However, many judges are refusing to follow the Humphrey decision. All public defenders and private defense attorneys in California must demand judges follow the law and hold new bail hearings for those locked up simply because they are too poor to purchase their freedom.”

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