The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that keeping people in jail based solely on their inability to post bail is unconstitutional.
The purpose of bail is to protect the public interest and to assure that those who are released from jail will return to court. However, the court found that it was not serving these functions because it “[did] not depend on a careful, individualized determination of the need to protect public safety, but merely—as one judge observes—on the accused’s ability to post the sum provided in a county’s uniform bail schedule.” The court stated that while the accused’s potential threat to the public was not balanced in any meaningful way when making bail determinations, “those incarcerated pending trial—who have not yet been convicted of a charged crime—unquestionably suffer a ‘direct “grievous loss”‘ of freedom in addition to other potential injuries.”
The issue came before the court when a 66-year-old man charged with robbery and burglary for allegedly robbing a fellow resident of a senior home was assigned bail of $600,000. The court later reduced his bail to $350,000, but he was still unable to pay.
The California Supreme Court stated:
Detaining an arrestee [without regard for his ability to pay bail] accords insufficient respect to the arrestee’s crucial state and federal equal protection rights against wealth-based detention as well as the arrestee’s state and federal substantive due process rights to pretrial liberty.
This decision follows California voters’ rejection of Proposition 25 in November. Proposition 25 would have replaced cash bail with a risk assessment model labeling the accused as low, medium and high risk based on their likelihood to pose a threat to the public and to fail to return to court. The proposition was originally passed as a law in 2018 by the state legislature, but it was put on hold by referendum until California voters could decide the issue.