by Lou Binninger
Liberal legislators in California have been on a mission to overhaul the criminal justice system. This time, it is bail reform to benefit the accused and those convicted of crimes. Lawmakers say the bail system is unfair to those short of funds. However, new legislation displays no concern for those victimized by criminals.
Senate Bill 10 and Assembly Bill 42, if passed, would change the pre-trial process, largely doing away with the bail bond system. Instead, those charged with or convicted of “non-violent, non-serious felonies” (including residential burglary) and misdemeanors would be released on their promise to return for court appearances.
The proposals would also change the bail schedule, now based on the seriousness of the charges, to a new approach where judges must establish bail at the lowest amount possible to discourage the subject from being a flight risk.
Currently, if defendants or those convicted do not return to court, their bail would be forfeited whether costing them or the bail bond company. The new approach removes the financial penalty for a failure to appear, but there is more.
The legislation’s new plan undermines the role of crime victims in the judicial process despite the passage by voters of the 2008 Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights or Marsy’s Law. This law ensures that victims would have, among other rights, the ability to have a voice in the criminal justice process.
Under Marsy’s Law victims’ rights are to be preserved by the court, district attorneys and law enforcement. Unfortunately, these entities have done poorly at honoring the law in some jurisdictions including Sutter County up until the departure of former District Attorney Carl Adams. Adams had a token Victim Services office and little passion for assisting victims.
Under the current system, the 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, have a right to be present, and be able to make a statement to the judge. These rights not only ensure that victims are treated with respect, but also allow the victim to have input on potential conditions of release.
SB 10 and AB 42 would for misdemeanors and some felonies eliminate an arraignment hearing where victims have rights and could have a say before a judge. This would be replaced by an administrative process where an agency would make an evaluation and decision for release without need of bail and without input from victims.
Victims fearing for their safety would have no opportunity to argue for a high bail, a stay-away or restraining order, nothing. Unless the legislation is amended, it looks like a step back to the Dark Ages for victims.
Years of getting tough on crime using determinant sentences and the 1994 Three Strikes Law saw the prison population spike and crime rates fall. Incarcerated criminals do not victimize communities.
Now, Three Strikes and determinant sentence reform have released thousands of prisoners. What has changed about these prisoners to benefit the community?
When politicians and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue for reducing sentences and bail they tout fairness to defendants and cost savings to the taxpayers for housing fewer inmates. However, they rarely explain that society pays a cost for being victimized. Costs per average incidence in 2008 dollars vary depending on the study, but it is expensive: murder $8,982,907, sexual assault $240,776, assault $107,020, robbery $42,310, arson $21,103, vehicle theft $10,772, stolen property $7,974 etc. to vandalism at $4,860.
When voters passed Proposition 47 it redefined many felonies as misdemeanors. If the crime loss was under $950 (shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, writing a bad check and use of illegal drugs) it was now a misdemeanor. But, Prop 47 had some unintended consequences.
Semisi Sina, a 30-year-old meth addict, steals bicycles to support his habit. He skipped out on drug treatment 5 times in 12 months. He has 16 arrests and a reputation with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He says the new law made it easier for him to commit crimes.
Sina was thrilled when he first heard about Proposition 47. He said he didn't start stealing bicycles until the proposition raised the threshold for a felony theft to $950.
"Proposition 47, it's cool," Sina said. "Like for me, I can go do a [commercial] burglary and know that if it's not over $900, they'll just give me a ticket and let me go."
"I know it's up to me to change. I wasn't ready. I probably still am not. I'm not going to lie — I'm still not ready to quit," he said on a break from shoveling dirt at a sheriff's training facility in Whittier.
Incarceration may not change Sina, but there are fewer citizens losing bicycles when he’s behind bars.