California has become the first state to completely eliminate the cash bail system. The controversial move is set to take effect October 1, 2019 – a date which will likely be deferred by opposition tactics from the bail bonds industry.
Back in October 2017, California state lawmakers made a pledge to overhaul the bail bond system. This pledge was based on a year-long study that ultimately concluded the state’s bail system is “unsafe and unfair”.
Fast forward to this last Tuesday when Governor Gerry Brown signed SB10, eliminating the cash bail system altogether. In it’s place will be a process which utilizes pioneering software designed to help determine whether a defendant is a significant flight risk. Judges will use data from this software along with other factors which include their own discretion, in determining if a defendant should be detained while they await trial. Elimination of the financial incentives will also be in part replaced with the use of hardware, such as GPS-enabled ankle bracelets and periodic government check-ins.
Aside from an attempt at equitability, this system also aims to help deal with the overpopulation issue in California jails. According to the SF Chronicle:
More than 48,000 county jail inmates in California — two-thirds of the jail population — have not yet been convicted of a crime, and most of them are being held because they are unable to post bail.
Bail bonds are traditionally used for defendants that can’t afford to cover the cash bail on their own, but these services can be expensive. The industry standard is to charge a 10 percent, non-refundable fee for the bond. The defendant must pay this fee, even if they are ultimately found not-guilty. And if the defendant actually skips out on bail (doesn’t attend their trial), then the bail bond company will often enroll the services of bounty hunters to ring them in.
So what does this mean for California bail bond businesses? Unless the new law is somehow overturned, this will spell assured extinction. Public outcry in defense of the bail bonds industry has been relatively muted following the decision. This is because it has become an astronomical money-maker for a few, and source of significant losses for the most financially vulnerable defendants.
With that said, the industry isn’t entirely shady, and many bond agents are honest people earning an honest dollar. But some companies have really spoiled public opinion for the bunch, for instance in 2015 when 31 total agents were arrested on a number of different charges.
With that said, there are over 3,000 licensed bail agents in California collecting over $3,000,000 in revenue annually (as of 2014). So to be sure, there will be a group of people that either need to find new work or relocate to one of the 49 states which continue to use the cash bail system.
Not everyone is on-board with the bill as it is written though. The ACLU (an early proponent of the bill) pulled their support in the end following revisions which they [rightfully] feel open the door to discriminatory bias.
In spite of it’s flaws, I like to believe that this bill is a step in the right direction for our legal system.
John Rosenbaum is an Orange County attorney with decades of experience serving southern California. A lifelong advocate of civil rights, John fights for his clients daily in cases dealing with Workers Compensation and Personal Injury.