Eliminating Bail in California Will Be An Economic Disaster

Dr. David Gonzalez
Assistant Professor in Public Administration and Organizational Leadership. He also has 23 years of experience in Law Enforcement.

Nothing in California comes cheap. It doesn’t matter if you try to build a bridge, link communities together via rail, upgrade a computer system, or fix the state’s payroll system. In California, most state projects seem to run over budget and are rarely completed on time.

Currently in California, over 300,000 defendants choose to bail out of jail every year at no cost to the taxpayer. The authors of AB 42 (Rob Bonta) and SB 10 (Bob Hertzberg) argue that the costs of these bills will be offset by savings from releasing people who cannot afford bail. However, the number of additional defendants that will be released is much smaller than supporters claim because they are using the misleading “unsentenced population” number. Many in the “unsentenced population” will not be eligible for release under these bills.

According to the May 2017 Public Policy Institute of California report, entitled Pretrial Release in California: “The unsentenced population is not synonymous with the pretrial population that is potentially eligible for release. Counties are instructed to count a defendant as unsentenced even if the defendant has been sentenced for one crime but has another case pending. An inmate may also be counted as unsentenced if he or she has been convicted of a crime but is awaiting sentencing. No systematic review of counties has been conducted to determine how parole and probation violators are counted and under what circumstances they are classified as sentenced versus unsentenced.”

The supporters of these bills exaggerate the cost savings by overestimating the number of defendants that would be eligible for pretrial release.

Furthermore, they fail to mention that in addition to running a 7-day-a-week pretrial system, there is also the requirement of: monitoring hundreds of thousands of defendants who will be released from jail, the cost associated when a defendant fails to appear in court ($1,775 per defendant), and the fiscal impact of ending a California bail industry that employs more than 3,200 individuals. An industry that generates millions of dollars in tax revenues in the form of premium tax and bond forfeitures paid to the courts when defendants don’t show up and can’t be located within 180 days.

In analyzing the fiscal impact of eliminating bail in California, we need to look at: the costs associated with implementing a pretrial system in other states that have already eliminated bail, population differentials, the fiscal analysis provided by both the California Senate and Assembly Appropriations Committees, and the specific requirements outlined in the legislation.

In fiscal year 2017, the cost for “Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia” was $65.2 million, with a stated goal of, “ensuring public safety and promoting pretrial justice through high-quality risk assessment, supervision and treatment services.”

In addition, Towson University conducted a study in 2014 entitled, “Estimating the Cost of the Proposed New Jersey Pretrial Service Unit and the Accompanying Legislation.” In that report, Daraius Irani, Ph.D estimated that New Jersey would need to spend $461 million in: startup costs, operating cost, and indirect costs that are comprised of additional public defenders, courtroom usage, and failure to appear and recidivism of released defendants.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations provides a lot of unknowns to the fiscal budget:

  • Pretrial: “Major likely-reimbursable costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually
  • Detention:Unknown
  • Compliance Monitoring and Training: “Unknown, major workload cost, in the millions of dollars ongoing”
  • Courts:Unknown workloads cost” “Minor costs to train judges, magistrates and commissioners”
  • Risk Assessment Tools:Unknown procurement and workload costs, potentially in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars”
  • Appointed Counsel: Moderate to significant possibly -reimbursable cost in the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars”
  • Data Reporting:Significant costs in the range of $200,000 to $300,000”

“The costs to conduct statewide compliance monitoring and training on risk assessments is unknown currently. It is also unknown if this statewide entity would be created anew for this purpose or if it would be housed in a preexisting agency.”

The Assembly Committee on Appropriations also seems to be guessing as to the fiscal impact to the state budget:

  • “Ongoing annual costs in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for court appointed counsel.”
  • “Ongoing costs in the tens of millions of dollars for the unnamed agency to comply with the provisions of this bill, which include one-time costs for the development of the risk assessment by an unspecified date, and ongoing annual costs to provide monitoring and assistance to pretrial services agencies.”
  • Unknown additional costs to the trial courts.”
  • “Costs in the $200,000 to $300,000 range for the BSCC to prepare develop a plan related to the annual reporting requirements.”

Under Senate Bill 10 (Bob Hertzberg) and Assembly Bill 42 (Rob Bonta) each county will be required to have enough staff, along with enough resources and development, to provide a detailed pretrial assessment report for every single person arrested, and with very limited exceptions, must be performed within the span of 48 hours of the “arrest and booking into a county jail.” In a report by former California Attorney General Kamala Harris, there are approximately 1.1 million adults arrested annually in California.

Currently New Jersey has a population of just 8.9 million, Washington, D.C. has a population of 681,000 and California has a population of 39.2 million.

With so many unknown costs as described in both the Senate and Assembly Appropriations Committee reports, if we were to simply analyze the population differentials alone, eliminating California’s bail system and replacing it with a New Jersey and Washington, D.C. equivalent pretrial system could mean that the fiscal impact to the California budget will be between $2 billion – $3.75 billion a year.

This is a “get out of jail” free card for those being held, but Californians are going to pay the bill and communities are going to be less safe as a result.

Dr. David Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor in Public Administration and Organizational Leadership. He also has 23 years of experience in Law Enforcement.

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