Stanley Mosk Courthouse (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia)

In July, the California Superior Court, Los Angeles approved a new set of bail schedules effectively ending the traditional cash bail system in LA.

The new schedule — a list of bail amounts for different charges— prioritizes new protocols that determine whether someone arrested is released based on a perceived risk to the public, or the victim‘s safety, and their flight risk for non-violent, non-serious felonies and misdemeanors; rather than an arbitrary amount of money tied to a crime. The new “zero-bail policy,” officially referred to as the pre-arraignment release protocols (PARP) by the LA Superior Court, largely eliminates the existing cash bail system for most crimes, except serious and violent cases.

While the policy is facing push back from smaller cities across the county and some in law enforcement, criminal justice experts and a preliminary point to the policy is working well so far. Twenty-nine LA County cities are suing to postpone the implementation of the zero-bail schedule — though it has been in effect since Oct. 1 — claiming that crime will go up as a consequence of the policy. Similarly, the Los Angeles Police Protective League has blamed the zero-bail policy for the increase in so-called “smash-and-grab” robberies, and former Sheriff Alex Villanueva criticized the policy saying it will burden local police departments.

However, a report released on Monday by the LA Superior Court reviewed data from these first three weeks under the zero-bail schedule, indicating that the new protocols have had “significant public safety benefits” compared to the traditional money bail system.

Though twelve cities initially filed the lawsuit, 29 are currently suing to postpone the zero-bail policy, including Artesia, Downey, Glendora, Vernon, and Whittier. The plaintiffs claim that the new bail schedule will result in a “significant increase in criminals released into the community,” according to a press release by the city of Glendora. But the preliminary report from the Superior Court shows that fewer than 3% of people who were released under the zero-bail policy have been rearrested since its implementation.

“This showcases the inherent danger of us relying on a money bail based system that does not factor risk into deciding whether individuals should be released,” said David W. Slayton, LA Superior Court executive officer and clerk.

Prohibitions in the state law do not allow the zero-bail policy to apply to serious and violent crimes, therefore, traditional money bail still applies to those cases, meaning people could still buy their way out of jail. About 50% of the people rearrested were released on money bail, according to the report. 

“The decision to release most arrestees from jail prior to conviction is no longer determined by a person’s wealth,” said presiding Judge Samantha P. Jessner, who leads the local court, at a press conference Monday held by the LA Superior Court.   

At yesterday’s press conference, Jessner tackled common pieces of misinformation concerning the new protocols, including the idea that PARP forces law enforcement officers to “catch-and-release” people.

“Nothing in PARP prevents law enforcement officers from booking individuals at their own discretion,” she pointed out.

Under the new rules police are able to request that a case undergo a “magistrate review” (even if a person is eligible for release) if they have additional information that suggest a person is a risk to the public or victim or will not show up to court. Under a magistrate review, a judge decides whether a person is released or remains in-custody until their arraignment, based on reports from the arresting officer, criminal history, and whether the person is a flight risk.

Even if a person is released before arraignment, this does not mean the person faces no consequences. A person must show up to their arraignment and a failure to do so will result in a warrant for their arrest. Depending on how a person pleads at arraignment, they are subject to a criminal trial and a sentence that may result in confinement.

“The idea that a single person is just like cycling in and out of jail … because there’s no consequences is an absurdity,” said Brian Hardingham, senior attorney with the Debtors’ Prison Project.

Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the union for the LA Police Department), claimed on Fox News in August that the new bail policy is to blame for the recent surge in “smash-and-grab” robberies. Smash-and-grab robberies have increased in the past months, with videos going viral of people stealing from businesses en masse. However, smash-and-grabs were already increased while the traditional bail policy was still in place.

Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva — who is currently running for a seat on the LA County Board of Supervisors — told Fox 11, local Fox affiliate, that the zero-bail policy will have the biggest impact on the 45 municipalities in the county with their own police departments. Villanueva made the somewhat spurious statement that, “now they carry the burden of having to deliver their own inmates to court until arraignment before they can go into the custody of the sheriff.” But it’s unclear what Villanueva is referring to. Accused out on bail have always been responsible themselves for showing up to court, and people in custody have always been transported to court by law enforcement, those things have not changed.

“That is absolutely more fear mongering,” said Ambrose Brooks, coalition coordinator with Dignity and Power Now, an abolitionist organization fighting for transformative justice.

Experts such as Christine S. Scott-Hayward, a professor at Cal State Long Beach, who gave a declaration in the Urquidi vs. the City of Los Angeles case, insists that the zero-bail policy won’t lead to an increase in crime and will instead help end the cycle of people going in and out of jail. Keeping people in jail pretrial does more harm than good to their families and the community, particularly in areas of health, financial well-being, and community safety, said Scott-Hayward. People who are kept in jail are more likely to lose their jobs. And especially in the case where the person jailed is the head of household it can affect the family from meeting their basic needs such as paying rent, she said.

People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty, be convicted at trial, and given longer sentences, according to Scott-Hayward. This may be because detained defendants are unable to build a strong mitigation case, she adds. Defendants who are released pending trial can show the judge that they have been able to maintain a job and stay out of trouble to support their case, whereas those detained cannot.

“Money bail doesn’t work and does nothing for public safety,” said Hardingham.

“It’s wealth discrimination”

The change comes after LA Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff ruled on May 16 (in Urquidi vs. the City of Los Angeles) that it was unconstitutional for LA County and the city of LA to jail people before their first court date due to an inability to pay bail.

Under the traditional bail system, each year, judges in various counties create a uniform county bail schedule that sets a specific dollar amount for each crime. A person could pay that amount and be released from jail while they await their arraignment — which is when their charges are officially read to them. If a person cannot post bail then they must wait in jail for their arraignment, which usually takes two to five days, although the person is presumed innocent.

In practice, the traditional cash bail system disproportionately affected poor people. Rich people arrested for serious crimes could pay their way out of jail, while poor people were forced to stay in jail for far lesser offenses. In 2020, 45% of people incarcerated in LA County jails were there awaiting their arraignment, with 72% of that population not having active holds — meaning the person doesn’t have pending legal issues — thus, likely incarcerated simply because they could not afford bail, according to a report by Vera Institute of Justice, an organization working to end mass incarceration. 

“It’s wealth discrimination, pure and simple,” said Hardingham.

In April 2020, shortly after Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to Covid, the LA Superior Court implemented an emergency bail schedule, which reduced bail for certain offenses in efforts to reduce local jail populations and prevent the transmission of the virus. While the emergency bail was in effect, LA County reduced its jail population from 17,000 to about 12,000, its lowest number in decades.

In 2022, civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit — Urquidi vs. the City of Los Angeles — against LA County, the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the LAPD, and various officials, on behalf of people who were arrested and whose families could not afford to post bail. The Los Angeles Judge Lawrence Riff on the case issued a preliminary injunction on the case reinstating the zero-bail policy on Oct. 1.

The complete list of the 29 cities (about a third of cities in the county) currently suing is: Arcadia, Artesia, Azusa, Baldwin Park, Beverly Hills, Cerritos, Covina, Downey, Duarte, Glendora, Industry, Irwindale, La Mirada, La Verne, Lakewood, Lancaster, Manhattan Beach, Norwalk, Palmdale, Paramount, Rosemead, San Dimas, Santa Clarita, Santa Fe Springs, Santa Monica, Torrance, Vernon, West Covina, and Whittier.

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.