Bail bond companies gathering signatures for referendum to keep them in business

Companies are hoping to block a new Calif. law that would eliminate cash bail to be released from jail

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Bail bond companies have started gathering signatures for a referendum to block a new California law, the first of its kind in the nation, that would eliminate cash bail as a requirement for pretrial release from jail.

State election officials authorized a trade association, the American Bail Coalition, to circulate petitions Monday to place the referendum on the November 2020 ballot. If the association collects 365,880 valid signatures of registered voters by Nov. 26, the law will be put on hold until the voters decide whether to repeal it. Otherwise, the law, SB10, would take effect in October 2019.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to end bail on Aug. 28.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to end bail on Aug. 28. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The measure, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Aug. 28, would abolish the system of requiring defendants to post bail, in amounts based on the level of the crime and a defendant’s record, in order to be freed while awaiting trial. At least one-third of jail inmates in California are being held because they are unable to post bail, and the system has been criticized for keeping poor defendants locked up while richer ones go free.

Instead, judges would decide whether to release defendants after an assessment of the danger they pose to the public and the likelihood they would return to court for trial. The assessments would use formulas based on the charges and circumstances of each case, but individual judges would have the last word.

The new law would also eliminate the bail bond industry in California, whose chief source of income is the non-refundable 10 percent fee that companies charge to defendants for posting bail.

While the bond companies are sponsoring the referendum, they’re looking for support from other opponents of SB10 who contend the new law would swap one system of pretrial confinement for another. Some criminal defense groups that supported early versions of the bill have said the final version, which increased judges’ authority over pretrial release, would increase confinement over current levels.

“The opposition was from both the left and the right,” Jeffrey Flint, spokesman for the referendum campaign, said Tuesday. “We anticipate and hope that the entire group of folks who opposed SB10 at the end of the session will support its repeal through the referendum process.”

Flint declined to discuss the budget for the referendum campaign but said sponsors are confident they have the funds to be able to get the measure to qualify for the ballot.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who supported lawmakers’ earlier proposals to abolish cash bail but opposed the final version of SB10, said he would rather work with lawmakers to amend the law, reducing “the unbridled power that the judiciary has,” than support a referendum to repeal the law.

“Do we tear it up and start again or can the Legislature make changes that would comport with fairness and due process?” Adachi said. ”I will be urging the latter.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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