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California bail reform bills ace out victims of crime
sacramento capitol

Liberal legislators in Sacramento are continuing their efforts to change California's criminal justice system with a new proposal for "bail reform" that leaves victims of crime out in the cold.

From the politicians' perspective, their reforms are aimed at making the system more equitable for those accused and convicted of criminal activity.

In two identical proposals by two Capitol Democrats - State Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Encino), primary author of Senate Bill 10, and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), primary author of Assembly Bill 42 - the state would fundamentally overhaul the pre-trial release process, largely doing away with the surety bail system. That system would be replaced with one that has a heavy bias towards releasing those charged with non-violent, non-serious felonies (including residential burglary) and misdemeanors on their word that they will return to court for their required appearances.

The mirror proposals going through the legislative process would also reduce the current bail schedule based on seriousness of charges to a new method where a judge must set bail at the lowest amount possible that a judge feels would be necessary to ensure the accused individual would not be a flight risk.

However, a review of the legislation reveals that it is structured in a way to significantly reduce the role of crime victims in this process, despite the passage in 2008 by voters of a Crime Victims' Bill of Rights, Marsy's Law, to ensure that victims would have, among other rights, the ability to have a voice in the criminal justice process.

Under the current system, the potential pre-trial release of someone charged with a crime takes place at an arraignment hearing. California's Constitution requires that victims be notified of public hearings, and that they have a right to be present, and to be able to make a statement to the judge. These rights not only ensure that victims are treated with dignity and respect, but also allow a victim to weigh in on potential release conditions.

The proposals by Hertzberg and Bonta would, in the case of all misdemeanors and many felonies, shift the decision process on pre-trial release of those charged with crimes from a hearing (where victims have rights) to an administrative process where an agency completes a pre-trial assessment report and arrestees are released without a public hearing at all, based on findings in the report.

Nowhere in the legislation is consideration given to provide victims with notification that this assessment is taking place. Nowhere is a victim given an opportunity to provide input to the assessment. If a victim has a concern for his or her safety, and perhaps would like a protective order against the individual being released, there is no way for the victim to be heard, or for his or her concerns to be taken into account.

This effort made headlines this week when famed bounty hunter Duane Chapman, the star of the reality TV show "Dog The Bounty Hunter" for eight seasons, appeared in an Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing to testify against the legislation. The Committee narrowly passed the legislation, with three Democrats voting yes, one Democrat abstaining, and the two Republicans voting no.

The Senate version of the bill passed through that chamber's Public Safety Committee earlier this month, with all five Democrats voting yes, and the lone Republican vote against it. Both bills must pass an additional committee before heading to the Assembly and Senate floors, respectively, for a full vote. Ultimately one of the bills will need to cross over and be passed by the other chamber before heading to the Governor's desk.

Primary supporters of this legislation include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), public defenders, and criminal defense lawyers, as well as various social justice groups - primarily arguing that the current system disadvantages those who cannot afford to pay bail.

Opponents are largely public safety organizations and, of course, bail bonds companies - who feel that this change would lead to an increased number of those accused of crimes fleeing, or committing other crimes while released.

This legislation follows on the heels of other controversial changes to the criminal justice system in California, including prison realignment, a ballot measure approved that reduced sentencing guidelines for many significant crimes; and a proposal approved by voters last November that ends determinative sentencing, and which will allow a great many convicted felons to come up for parole significantly earlier.

These ballot measures were passed largely on the strength of misleading ballot titles and summaries issued by then-Attorney General, now U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris.

Jon Fleischman has been chronicling the California political scene for nearly three decades.