Less than 3% of the 5,113 people booked for a crime in the first three weeks of October committed were arrested for a second offense after their release under Los Angeles County’s controversial zero-bail policy, according to the Superior Court.
Officials for the court system touted the low reoffense rate and other preliminary findings released Monday, Oct. 30, as evidence that zero bail, a policy derided by law enforcement and more than a dozen cities, has been a success so far. The report tracked the risk levels of the individuals released or held until arraignment under zero bail, as well as whether they were arrested for additional crimes following their release from custody.
“This new system is working exactly the way it was intended — the vast majority of those determined by a magistrate to be a significant risk to public and victim safety, or a significant flight risk, are being temporarily held in jail prior to arraignment, while the vast majority of those who pose little risk to public or victim safety and are likely to return to court are being released with non-financial conditions,” Presiding Judge Samantha P. Jessner said in a statement.
“Under the previous money bail system,” she said, “those same high-risk individuals would be able to buy their release from jail if they had access to money, and the low-risk individuals would remain in jail for days, weeks, months, or even years if they did not have access to money to purchase their release.”
The data released by the courts covered bookings from midnight Oct. 1 until 11:59 p.m. Oct. 21. It did not include anyone who was cited and released in the field by law enforcement, nor did it include any data on whether zero bail impacted court appearances, likely due to the limited time frame.
3 categories of offenses
Officials said 243 people were booked daily on average during the period in question, a number that is consistent with daily bookings over the past 12 months, .
Under the new policy, nonserious and nonviolent offenses fall under three categories: cite and release, book and release, and magistrate review.
In total, about 1,100 people were released immediately for a cite-and-release or book-and-release offense during the three-week period. The report indicates that 85% were considered “low risk.”
Nearly a third of all bookings went before a magistrate. Of the reviewed cases, more than 60% were held until arraignment.
“Those who present a risk are being held based on risk and not based on whether they have access to money,” Jessner said.
The findings, however, did little to sway the policy’s opponents.
Several law enforcement agencies and two dozen cities, including most recently Torrance, have come out against the policy and criticize it as a “catch-and-release” program. Whittier, along with the other cities, are suing the Superior Court system to rescind the policy. That case is pending.
In a statement, Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri said there are still lingering questions and concerns that require “careful consideration.”
“The policy’s success is being touted only after a mere three weeks of implementation, and while initial data may show some positive results, three weeks is hardly enough time to gauge the long-term impact of such a significant change to the existing bail schedule,” he said in an email. “Particularly concerning is the fact that those offenders who were cited and/or booked and released under this policy still have yet to be seen in court.”
It can take 60 days or more for a case to be heard under the new system, he said, “raising questions about what these individuals may have been doing in the meantime.”
Serious, violent crimes don’t qualify
The new zero-bail policy does not apply to “serious and violent” crimes, a legal term that has bail procedures enshrined in state law, but court officials said it creates a system for lesser crimes that weighs the risk posed by each individual offender, instead of setting a flat dollar amount for bail tied to the offense.
The data released by the courts showed about half of those who committed a second crime — 64 people — had posted a traditional bail for a serious or violent offense that did not qualify for zero bail. Court officials pointed to that figure to bolster their argument for the “risk-based” assessments offered by zero bail.
“It is important to understand that under existing law, offenses that are designated by statute as serious or violent offenses, including crimes like murder, rape and robbery, are still subject to release on traditional money bail,” Jessner said. “In these instances, when someone is arrested for a serious or violent crime, they can buy their way out of jail regardless of risk.”
Roughly 40% of the people booked during the three-week period did not qualify for zero bail, officials said.
Despite the legal terminology, crimes that would likely be considered “serious” and “violent” by the public do qualify, including battery of a police officer, human trafficking and looting, among others.
Retail crime concerns
Critics have pointed to retail crimes, in particular, as a type of offense where they argue criminals will be emboldened to commit more crimes. During a press conference Monday, court officials argued against the idea that zero bail does not provide accountability, saying bail isn’t meant to be a punishment.
“It is critical to remember that in our justice system, people are innocent until proven guilty,” Jessner said.
Police officers who believe a suspect poses a risk to the public still have discretion to place them in jail and can also request what is called a “bail deviation,” in which the on-call magistrate, typically a Superior Court judge, will make a risk assessment based on the suspect’s criminal history and other factors, regardless of whether the crime falls into the cite- or book-and-release categories.
Those elevations didn’t typically happen, however, according to the courts. Officers requested a bail deviation in only 3% of the total bookings reviewed. The Superior Court’s executive officer, David Slayton, said part of that may be because not enough officers know about the option. They hope to partner with law enforcement agencies to offer training to increase knowledge about it, he said.
Those magistrate reviews require only a “one-minute” phone call, though it can take up to four to six hours to complete the whole process, officials said.
Vinatieri said the “one-minute” call is “inconsistent with what many of our police departments have experienced in actual practice the past three weeks and the text of the bail schedules.”
“A comprehensive evaluation of the zero-bail policy should involve a longer time frame and an in-depth examination of all cases, including both cite-and-release and book-and-release data,” he said. “While the policy is intended to address overcrowding in jails and reduce the number of low-level offenders awaiting trial, it’s critical that we strike a balance between these goals and ensuring public safety.”
The Superior Court announced it will release a data dashboard on its website in the near future to allow the public to measure how the program is doing. The court is “committed to using data to monitor the new system” to ensure it both protects communities and ensures those who pose little risk do not sit in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, Slayton said.