Newly Released Data Depicts Zero-Dollar Bail as a Viable Policy
County-commissioned study finds no negative effects on rearrest rates or failures to appear.
Zero-dollar cash bail has had no negative effect on clients’ ability to follow through with their court requirements, according to a recent study released by the LA County Board of Supervisors. The report examined a wide swath of pretrial intervention programs implemented for arrested individuals across LA County, and showed that court appearance rates and rearrest rates have remained steady or dropped since zero-bail policies have been put in place.
In August 2020, the board approved a measure by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis to create a quarterly report in order to inform future pretrial reform. The report’s development was guided by a working group composed of representatives from over 20 county departments such as the County Bar Association, the district attorney’s office, and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, as well as external partners including The Bail Project and Dignity and Power Now. The group gathered data from a three-year period from April 2018 to March 2021.
This time frame gives a clear indicator of rates before and after the policy was enacted in June 2020. The initiative was implemented in the early days of the pandemic not as a reform measure, but as an effort to curb COVID exposure in jails. However, the data tells an additional story. Amongst the proportion of cases granted bail/bond release, the “failure to appear” rates for both misdemeanor and felony cases in early 2021 remained well below historical averages (2% vs 3%).
Misdemeanor rearrest rates for the first three months of 2021 shared a similar downward trend (1% vs 2%), while felony rates during the same time frame remained steady with historical averages at 3%.
In response to the report’s findings, Supervisor Kuehl told Knock LA, “The County’s report on the effects of bail reform during the pandemic is proof positive that state bail policies had nothing to do with crime rates and that modified bail schedules, implemented during the pandemic, can safely remain in place, effectively reducing the number of people who lose their jobs, their homes, and their families while awaiting trial.”
Cash bail has been a contentious policy subject to thorough scrutiny in recent years. Critics argue that cash bail encourages a world in which pretrial detention is only for the poor. Cash bail does not guarantee public safety and can have devastating consequences for those who can’t afford the price tag. LA County public defender and Local 148 member Garrett Miller tells Knock LA, “When a client is free while fighting their case, they are able to make the thoughtful decisions necessary to defend their case without the trauma of incarceration and the stress of losing their job, housing, and the ability to care for their loved ones.”
In Knock LA’s 2020 voter guide, we recommended voting against Prop 25, which sought to uphold the initially strong but tragically gutted SB10 bill. Prop 25/SB10 would have done away with cash bail in favor of installing a costly and complicated algorithm with very little transparency in its place. We argued that Los Angeles’ new experiment with the zero-dollar cash bail initiative showed promise that we could eliminate cash bail altogether. The data so far underscores the potential of a zero-cash bail system.
While several law enforcement officers across California have cited anecdotal reasons to declare zero-bail policy a failure, they have yet to produce empirical evidence to back up their claims. Perhaps because no such evidence has materialized to support them.
“[The report] doesn’t ‘prove’ a point we’re trying to make, but it does prove that the people who are blaming the appearance of an increase in crime on zero-bail are not telling the truth,” offered John Raphling from Human Rights Watch. “Maybe they’re looking for a narrative that suits their view.”
However, just because the data is favorable does not mean that judges are still honoring the cash bail policy. “As the pandemic has worn on, the application of the policy has waned, which has led to an increase of our clients being held in custody while fighting their cases,” Miller warns. “We are hopeful that the data that has been gathered through this emergency action can guide future permanent policy.”
It is still too early for definitive answers based on these numbers, but if the trend continues, the county can viably argue that cash bail holds no tangible benefit to public safety, and move toward making cash bail obsolete in Los Angeles County.