The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled it's unconstitutional to hold defendants in jail if they cannot afford bail, handing a partial victory to criminal justice advocates and other critics of cash bail.
"The common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional," Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the unanimous court. "Other conditions of release — such as electronic monitoring, regular check-ins with a pretrial case manager, community housing or shelter, and drug and alcohol treatment — can in many cases protect public and victim safety as well as assure the arrestee's appearance at trial."
Under the ruling, judges can keep criminal defendants behind bars only if there's "clear and convincing" evidence it's the only way to protect the public and ensure the defendant shows up in court, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Supreme Court cited research that pretrial confinement has significant negative impacts on a defendant's life and livelihood and often wastes public money, pointing to a report that six California counties spent $37.5 million over two years incarcerating people who were never charged or prosecuted.
The justices also noted that median bail in California, $50,000, five times the national average. Bail bond companies keep a defendant's deposit, up to 10 percent of the bail amount, even if they show up to court.
The cash bail industry, which has about 2,500 agents in California, will lose out under the ruling, but "we can live with it," Albert Ramirez, general counsel of the Golden State Bail Agents Association, told the Times. A ballot measure that would have ended cash bail, defeated in November after a campaign from the bail industry, would have been devastating, he added, but the industry knows bail in California is "ridiculously high" so it's fine if this ruling lowers it some.
Illinois ended cash bail altogether earlier this year, and several other states have abolished it in some cases.