Examining the Impacts of Bail on California’s Jail Population

Bail Bonds Military DiscountsThere is a movement in California to reform the bail system, statewide. Proponents of this movement believe that the discrepancies in bail schedules from county to county are a discriminatory practice against the poor, leading to overcrowding in jails in areas of the state with the highest rates of poverty.

Since the introduction of the Public Safety Realignment Act, the bail reform movement has been focused on the possibility that reform could free up budgetary and spatial resources in the county jail systems and could lead to lower-risk arrestees being awarded a pre-trial release through nonfinancial means.

In 2011, Governor Edmund G. Brown signed Assembly Bill 109 & AB 117, the Public Safety Realignment Act (referred to in short as Realignment), into legislation. Realignment absolved the state of responsibility for lower-level offenders and reassigned that responsibility to the county level, which became a cause for alarm that county jails across the state would become dangerously overpopulated.

Across the state, there has been an average increase in bail amounts of 22 percent over the last decade, but this average does not reflect each county individually. In some counties, the bail schedules have not increased at all. Bail reform advocates are seeking to reduce the statewide bail average by 31 percent, which they believe would reduce the number of pre-trial inmates by roughly 4 percent. This would have amounted to 2,843 less pretrial inmates in the year before realignment when the statewide average daily population of inmates awaiting trial was documented at 50,472.

When looking at the per capita number of pre-trial inmates per 100,000 residents, the 31 percent decrease in bail amounts would equal an estimated drop of 7 pre-trial inmates per 100,000 or 2,666 inmates statewide. These numbers are driven mostly by the state’s most populated counties, especially Los Angeles, and may actually disprove the effectiveness of statewide bail reform. What the numbers actually do show is that reductions in bail levels are more likely to be effective in the counties that rely strictly on bail schedules when making decisions regarding pretrial releases, but because of the extreme variations in bail levels between counties, bail reform may not result in as large of a statewide reduction in overcrowding as previously thought.

These findings do, however, suggest that reducing bail amounts and uniformly revamping the bail schedules statewide could definitely produce the desired effect in those areas of the state where judges refer solely to the bail schedules, instead of making decisions based on individual case evaluations. Nevertheless, these reforms could create a major public safety concern unless pretrial evaluation programs are developed to guarantee that these bail reductions apply to only the lowest-risk pre-trial inmates in the jail system and do not result in an increase of pre-trial releases for violent and high-risk offenders.


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