California Supreme Court curtails use of cash bail for some defendants

The racial unrest that has characterized the last year has bolstered activist demands for far-reaching criminal justice reform, and courts and legislatures in some parts of the country are responding to those calls in controversial ways.

The Los Angeles Times reports that in a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court last week ruled that detaining criminal defendants solely based on their inability to afford bail is an unconstitutional practice and that financial resources must be taken into consideration before bail amounts are fixed in a given case, ending the current manner in which such pretrial decisions are made.

It should be noted that the decision does not equate to a complete prohibition on the use of cash bail in criminal matters, but the justices did impose on lower court judges a duty to assess the seriousness of the charges faced by each defendant together with their criminal history before determining a reasonable bail amount, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Going forward, courts will be permitted to keep individuals in custody by imposing bail “only if it first finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that no nonfinancial condition of release can reasonably protect” against risks to public safety or of defendant flight, according to the opinion in the case.

Back in November, California voters rejected proposed legislation that would have brought a complete end to the use of cash bail in favor of risk assessments that would have been conducted for each and every criminal defendant, as Fox News reported.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court’s decision to limit the use of cash bail for defendants unable to pay was met with approval from criminal justice reform advocates as well as others impacted by the ruling.

Karen Pank, executive director of Chief Probation Officers of California expressed her support for the change, saying, “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.”

California is not alone in taking strong steps in limiting the use of cash bail, with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signing legislation earlier this year that made his state the first in the country to halt its use entirely, as The Hill reported.

Amid news that Los Angeles has seen a massive rise in shootings and other crime during the first part of 2021 and in the wake of last year’s slashing of that city’s police budget by $150 million, however, the ultimate wisdom of any move likely to release more criminals onto the streets while awaiting further adjudication remains to be seen.