Although a California State Senate bill signed into law last year will effectively eliminate cash bail as a condition of release for defendants charged with certain misdemeanors should voters choose not to repeal it in the November 2020 election, San Joaquin County has offered a bail alternative for years.

During last Tuesday’s San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting, Chief Probation Officer Stephanie James said planning for the Pretrial Assessment and Monitoring Program began in August 2013 as part of the Assembly Bill 109 Realignment Plan, and the program went live in October 2014.

At that time, James said the county was faced with an overcrowded jail, a court ordered population cap and a large number of emergency releases.

“We realized that we really needed to reserve detention for those individuals that pose a risk to the community, or are at risk for failing to appear in court,” James said.

Although pre-trial releases were already occurring, James said they had no way to track whether defendants were showing up for court or if they were committing new crimes while going through the court process.

James said last Thursday that the validation tool used by the program is designed to predict how likely a defendant is to commit new crimes during the court process, and how likely they are to show up in court.

During the program’s fourth year in operation from Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, James said 97.4 percent of defendants did not commit any new crimes during the court process and 95 percent showed up for all of their scheduled court dates.

“Because those are the two things the tool is supposed to predict, those are the two most important measures (of success),” James said. “It’s been four years in a row that we’ve had the same level of success, which really gives me confidence in the program we have here in San Joaquin County.”

In addition to the court reminders, James believes the different levels of pretrial monitoring play a large role in the program’s continued success.

“There’s plenty of evidence that proves that if they receive monitoring and court reminders, they’re more likely to be successful,” James said.

As the program already has adequate staffing, data collection methods, an assessment tool and monitoring system already in place, James said the county is already poised to comply with SB 10 should the referendum to repeal it fail in the November 2020 election.

“Besides the elimination of having bail for defendants, our program is pretty similar to Senate Bill 10,” James said.

Signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in August 2018, SB 10 will effectively eliminate cash bail as a condition of release for defendants awaiting trial should the referendum to repeal it fail in the November 2020 election.

Defendants charged with misdemeanors and other nonviolent crimes would be released on their own recognizance under the new law, while those charged with violent felonies and those with a history of failing to appear in court would be subject to “preventive detention.”

Those held in preventive detention would be entitled to a hearing within three days, where the courts must demonstrate why the defendant should not be released before their trial.

Should the courts determine that there is not enough reason to keep the defendants in custody, the law would require their release either on their own recognizance or under supervision and “the least restrictive non-monetary conditions of pretrial release,” to ensure public safety and that the defendants will appear in court.

The changes the county would need to make mostly involved the court system itself, James said, such as developing a local rule of court for medium-risk offenders.

SB 10 also considers different factors when determining whether to release or detain a defendant, James said, which may impact the county jail’s population.

“We don’t know how that’s going to impact our population because we don’t assess based on those factors at this time,” James said. “It could be more, it could be less.”

The pretrial assessment and monitoring program has been “invaluable” to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, Assistant Sheriff Greg Williamson said during a Feb. 26 meeting, as it has allowed them to both control their jail population and collaborate with the probation department and pretrial services.

“It’s another set of eyes and ears in the law enforcement arena that can work together and solve this problem,” Williamson said. “It is absolutely an asset for the sheriff’s office, and I don’t think we could operate without it.”

In addition to placing the least restrictive conditions on each defendant as they are assessed as individuals, public defender Miriam Lyell also praised the program’s yearly assessments during last Tuesday’s meeting for helping to ensure that the program is administered fairly across gender, racial and socioeconomic lines.

“I appreciate that it is fluid, that it is being assessed yearly and that Chief James is first within the industry, within probation, within pre-trial monitoring to ensure that the best practices are implemented in San Joaquin County,” Lyell said.

District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said during last Tuesday’s meeting that the program not only helps prevent people from being wrongfully incarcerated and ensures that those who pose a risk to public safety are detained, but it has also decreased the amount of repeat offenders in the county’s court system.

“I think, really, it is bar-none one of the best programs not only in the State of California for pretrial services based on best evidence practices, but it’s also one of the best in the United States,” Verber Salazar said.

During last Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Kathy Miller said she has heard concerns that SB 10 may reinforce “inherent biases,” such as racial prejudice.

“If you’re a person of color, and historically they are incarcerated at higher rates, then that factors into your risk assessment, so it’s perpetuated. You’re not eligible for these services because of that,” Miller said.

“What can be done to address that? Are there things we’re doing here locally, and is there a way out of that?”

James said that although the county’s pre-trial program did not begin examining race or ethnicity until last year, she has found no link between defendants’ race or ethnicity and their success rates.

“I am very pleased to find that in the results of the success, there was no statistical significance regarding race,” James said.

Supervisor Chuck Winn said during last Tuesday’s meeting that he has heard several safety-related concerns from his constituents, and that he would like to see either anecdotal information or statistics about defendants who would have been kept in custody under SB 10 but were able to post bail and commit additional crimes.

“All I’m saying is it would be nice to have that information assembled so that at some point in time — maybe the end of this year, certainly before 2020 — to at least have an idea of how our ‘hybrid system,’ for lack of a better term, is working as opposed to if we were under SB 10,” Winn said.

James said San Joaquin County has a relatively small population of defendants who posted bail — that would not have been released under SB 10 — and went on to commit new crimes.

“Our county, like I said, is really going to see minimal impact,” James said. “The counties that are going to feel significant impacts are those that, right now, bail is the only option.”

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