LA Cash Bail Restricted by Judge During Court Challenge

(Bloomberg) -- The cash bail system in Los Angeles was curtailed by a state judge who issued a preliminary injunction that will allow most people charged with low-level crimes to be released without having to post bail.

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Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff on Tuesday ordered Los Angeles officials to drop the current system and abide by an emergency bail schedule that was put in place in October 2020 during the Covid pandemic, beginning May 24. Under that practice, as a general rule, no bail is required for all infractions, misdemeanors and felonies, with a number of exceptions for crimes such as domestic violence, violent felonies and any theft with a loss of more than $100,000.

The judge also issued a broader injunction barring the enforcement of current bail rules, but he put that on hold until July 17 to give all sides a chance to develop a plan for the release of detainees. He ordered them to submit the plan to him by July 5.

The issue of cash bail dominated the midterm elections in several states, including New York and Illinois, with those advocating its abolishment saying poor people end up imprisoned, for years at times, only because they can’t afford to buy their way out of jail. Opponents argued abolishing cash bail will lead to a surge in crime.

“The evidence demonstrates that secured money bail as now utilized in Los Angeles County is itself ‘criminogenic’ — that is secured money bail causes more crime than would be the case were the money bail schedules no longer enforced,” Riff wrote in the 58-page decision.

The defendants provided no evidence to the contrary, the judge said.

“This is not for a want of opportunity,” Riff wrote, saying he invited the mayor, sheriff, chief of police and anyone from the County Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles City Council to come to court and be heard.

“Perhaps these public officials, given their expertise in criminology and public administration, have better ideas for the content of the PI than proposed by the plaintiffs,” he said, referring to the preliminary injunction. “But all have declined to testify.”

Los Angeles, with the largest jail system in the country, requires people who are arrested on suspicion of crimes to pay between $250 and $1,000 if they’re charged with misdemeanors and as much as $50,000 for felonies. The amounts are set by a committee of Los Angeles County Superior Court judges.

The practice was challenged by a group of civil rights organizations and law firms who sued the city and county of Los Angeles as well as the LA Sheriff and Police Departments seeking the injunction while the constitutionality of the practice is challenged.

LA County said in an emailed statement Wednesday that it’s hopeful the judge’s ruling will help reduce the jail population.

“It is worth noting that the state, its Judicial Council and the court system set the bail schedule, and the county’s authority is limited solely to implementing that schedule,” the county said. “The county did not defend the constitutionality of the current system, and the Board of Supervisors is focused on pretrial reforms that would create a fairer system and lower the jail population. The Sheriff’s Department is working to implement the court’s ruling by May 24.”

The ruling was welcomed by The Bail Project, a national non-profit that provides bail assistance to low-income people.

“After paying bail for nearly 30,000 clients nationally, our clients returned to over 90% of their court dates with none of their own money on the line,” the group said in a statement. “We are hopeful that as this case proceeds that Los Angeles will finally move towards a more humane pretrial system where pretrial freedom is not determined by the amount of money in a person’s bank account.”

The judge’s ruling will have an immediate impact on those arrested in Los Angeles County, said Munger, Tolles & Olson Chair Brad Brian, who along with Salil Dudani of Civil Rights Corps argued the motion for the preliminary injunction. “We are confident that LA County bail policies are unconstitutional, and look forward to proving that at trial.”

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon said in November he wasn’t surprised the cash bail system was being challenged, adding that upon taking office he changed the policy to reject the heavy reliance on the bail schedule and courts should have followed.

“For nearly a decade, I have advocated against cash bail,” said Gascon, who was previously San Francisco’s district attorney.

The case is Urquidi v. City of Los Angeles, 22-STCP-04044, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.

(Updates with comment from the County)

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