SAN FRANCISCO — California’s top judge said Tuesday that she wants to do away with the state’s cash bail system, adding a powerful voice to criticism that it keeps poor people behind bars while wealthier suspects can pay for their freedom and increasing pressure on state lawmakers to pass a bail reform measure.
The bold proposal endorsed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye would instead rely on assessments of defendants’ flight risk and danger to the public to determine whether they should be released. Judges could order weekly contact with a pretrial services officer, monitoring, home confinement, or other restrictions and would have the authority to hold suspects in the most serious cases.
The proposals are contained in a report by the judiciary and will require legislative approval to go into law. Cantil-Sakauye, who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the report should serve as a framework for discussions with Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature.
“I support the conclusion that California’s current pretrial system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety,” she said in a statement.
The proposal is likely to face fierce opposition from the bail industry. Similar bail reform measures approved in New Jersey and New Mexico have faced lawsuits.
The centuries-old cash-bail system has become one of the flashpoints in the debate over equal justice. Critics argue that many poor defendants languish in jail for minor offenses while wealthy suspects accused of serious crimes can often post bail while awaiting trial.
“Thousands of Californians who pose no risk to the public are held in jail before trial,” said Brian Back, a judge in California’s Ventura County who co-chaired the judicial group that proposed the bail reforms in the state.
Opponents of scrapping cash bail say it ensures people show up to court. Bail is money or property that can be forfeited if suspects fail to appear.
A bail reform bill was approved by the state Senate in the most recent legislative session, but its author, Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys, said he would have had to make additional compromises to get it through the Assembly before the Legislature adjourned in mid-September.
Top state officials promised to study the issue and try again next year. Brown, a Democrat, has said inequities exist in California’s bail system and pledged reform.
Herzberg said in a statement Tuesday that he looked forward to moving his legislation forward next year. He said opponents of the measure had urged lawmakers to hold off on it to await the recommendations of the judiciary. He said now the judges “have ruled: We must replace money bail because it is unsafe and unfair.”
The chief justice made headlines earlier this year when she clashed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly over immigration arrests at courthouses, saying the practice would affect the public’s confidence in the court system.