When an individual gets arrested in the State of California they are routinely booked into jail. In many cases, there is no bail set until the accused has the opportunity to go before the judge. Based solely on accusations, bail can be set at $500,000 or $1,000,000 dollars. Very few people arrested for criminal offenses have the resources and assets to meet high bail obligations. What constitutes a high bail is of course relative. For many people a bail of $5,000 or $10,000 is far too expensive.
A bail amount that is unattainable for the accused gives the prosecutor incredible bargaining power. Individuals forced to remain in jail while their case is pending are much more likely to take plea offers even if they have a defensible case. It is much harder for an accused person to assist in their own defense while in jail.
In rare cases, a high bail amount makes sense. When a person has a criminal history of extreme violence or is a legitimate flight risk, a high bail amount protects the community. However, high bail amounts are not being set only in those rare cases. In many cases people are confined in jail for long periods of time due to high bail amounts, and the accusations are later found to be false or exaggerated.
There are risk assessment tools that can be used by pre-trial services to determine if an accused person can safely be released on bail or supervised release, without that person having to post large sums of money. No longer should pre-trial release be dependent on who can afford to buy their freedom at this early stage. The longer an individual remains in jail the more damage to their family, their children, and their future. Job or housing loss for pre-trial detainees is common.
I urge all Solo and Small Firm Section members that are opposed to inequitable bail settings for the accused to get involved with local bail reform efforts. This can be as simple as writing a letter to your local representative, or seeking out bail reform organizations online and getting involved.
About the author:
Matt Sullivan is the owner of the Law Office of Matt Sullivan. He has extensive litigation experience in complex criminal defense matters. He began his legal career as a Marin County deputy public defender and then went on to work for a private criminal defense firm in San Francisco, before opening up his own practice.