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California governor signs landmark bill to eliminate cash bail

In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to eliminate cash bail for those awaiting trial. The new law grants broad discretion to judges to hold or release defendants. But some opponents, including the ACLU, fear that these changes will result in more people being detained before trial. Judy Woodruff interviews Marisa Lagos of public television station KQED, which has covered the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The state of California took a landmark step toward criminal justice reform today, as Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would eliminate cash bail for those awaiting trial.

    Marisa Lagos of public television station KQED has been covering the story, and she joins me now.

    Marisa Lagos, welcome.

    So, just quickly, who was behind this effort? And what exactly would this new law do?

  • Marisa Lagos:

    Well, this is a change that was backed by the governor, the chief justice of the court system here, and a majority of the legislature, as well as some criminal justice groups.

    It would basically eliminate cash bail as of October 19 and replace it with a system that gives judges a lot more discretion. They would be guided by risk assessment tools that would decide whether someone's a low, medium or high risk for release.

    But, ultimately, unless somebody was a misdemeanor defendant, in which case they would be automatically released, or very high-risk or facing a violent felony, the judges would really make that call.

    And so it has been controversial. Some people think it's giving judges too much power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, again, this would apply to in all criminal accusation — criminal allegations?

  • Marisa Lagos:

    That's right. I mean, this is a huge sea change.

    We have seen some other changes and other states that doesn't go this far. But, basically, as of next fall, if you're arrested for a crime in California, cash bail will not be on the table. It will entirely be up to that court. And there could be, of course, conditions, say, an ankle monitor, probation oversight.

    But the idea is that most low-risk and medium-risk defendants would get out and would be allowed to continue with their jobs and their families while they await trial.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, tell us more, Marisa, about the opposition to it, and what that's based on.

  • Marisa Lagos:

    Yes, so I mean, the bail industry has opposed this from the beginning, of course, for financial reasons.

    But in the last few weeks, as this final compromise bill was revealed, the ACLU and some other groups who have really pushed for this reform said they are going to oppose it. They think that this is going to actually result in more people being detained pretrial, and they have concerns about biases that exists within the court system.

    For example, a judge may look at an African-American defendant differently than a white defendant, based on their own biases, maybe some that they're aware of, or that these risk assessment tools, which use algorithms to look at somebody's criminal history, their job history, what they're facing this time, that those could have problems.

    And so we did see the ACLU come off of this bill. Interestingly, law enforcement, which had opposed earlier versions, is neutral. And so that is sort of a flip of who the opponents are, although I think it's important to say that there are still some criminal justice groups that pushed this that remain in support.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just quickly, Marisa, going forward, California often leads the country in legal measures and steps that it's taking, but is this expected to be challenged in the courts?

  • Marisa Lagos:

    It is.

    I talked to the American Bail Coalition today. They believe that this requires a change to the state constitution, and that it can't be done legislatively, the way it was. And — but, as you said, this is very sweeping. It goes further than any other state has gone. And so I think we would expect any change like that to end up being challenged.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Marisa Lagos of KQED public television, thank you very much.

  • Marisa Lagos:

    Thanks, Judy.

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