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Report Calls California's Bail System 'Unsafe And Unfair' And Recommends It Be Reformed


States are facing calls to move away from a bail system based on money. Detractors say that system is unjust. In the nation's largest state court system, California, a report out today calls the commercial bail system unsafe and unfair. The study recommends that it be abolished and replaced with a system that includes robust safety assessments. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The yearlong study by a work group created by California's chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, argues that the state's current money bail system largely bases a defendant's liberty on his or her finances, not an in-depth assessment of whether the defendant is a flight or safety risk. Those with means awaiting trial often have the ability to pay their way out, while most low-income people simply do not. Martin Hoshino is with the Judicial Council of California.

MARTIN HOSHINO: Therein lies the fundamental fairness issue of, is there a two-tier justice system that is operating here?

WESTERVELT: Today's report says it is. Supporters of reform say sweeping changes are overdue. The state has among the nation's highest bail rates, or schedules, and high rates of people who don't show up to court. Natasha Minsker with California's ACLU says more than half of the people in the state's jails are awaiting trial or sentencing but simply don't have the money or property to get out on bail.

NATASHA MINSKER: It's really, actually a very strange system where we are allowing private companies to make profits off of people's freedom.

WESTERVELT: But some prosecutors, judges and the bail industry argue that cash bail is an important tool. Jeff Clayton directs the American Bail Coalition, a trade group. He agrees reforms are needed. Bail rates in the state are too high, he says, and low-level offenders with low incomes should not wallow in jail. But Clayton calls the report's recommendation to phase out commercial bail extreme.

JEFFREY CLAYTON: That's going too far. The bill should remain as an option, and then the question becomes, in what cases and how often should it be used?

WESTERVELT: California's governor, the judiciary and lawmakers have agreed to tackle those questions when the legislature reconvenes in January. And today's report puts significant judicial weight behind those efforts - what's likely to become the nation's biggest experiment in moving away from commercial bail. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.