Zero-bail policy takes effect in Los Angeles County, ending traditional cash system

The new policy eliminates the existing cash bail system for all but the most serious of crimes in the county.

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Monday, October 2, 2023
Controversial zero-bail policy takes effect in LA County
A controversial zero-bail policy is now in effect in Los Angeles County, ending the years-long standard of setting cash bail amounts for defendants.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A controversial zero-bail policy is now in effect in Los Angeles County, ending the years-long standard of setting cash bail amounts for defendants commensurate with the severity of the crime they are accused of committing -- a process critics say favors the rich while doing little to protect public safety.

The new policy eliminates the existing cash bail system for all but the most serious of crimes.

It ushers in a major change in how the court system deals with people who are arrested and how long they stay in custody. The zero-bail will apply to misdemeanors and specific non-violent felonies.

"This change just applies to a tiny segment of the pretrial system," says Jeff Stein from Civil Rights Corps.

"It's just about that window between when a person is arrested and when they see a judge in LA. That can last up to five days."

Law enforcement officials and some residents are concerned about how the new policy will impact crime.

"Our communities have not been shy about telling us how nervous they are about this change," county Sheriff Robert Luna told the Board of Supervisors last week, saying crime victims who see offenders immediately released from custody are left with little confidence in the criminal justice system. He said he understands the need to respect constitutional rights of arrestees, but said zero-bail can demoralize deputies and police officers who work hard to make arrests, only to "watch the offender walk away with a citation as the victim looks on in disbelief."

But Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the zero-bail system taking effect Sunday does not mean criminals are escaping punishment for their offenses.

"It's really dangerous for us to conflate bail with accountability," Mitchell said, adding later: "Bail means I have the resources to pay my way out of jail."

The zero-bail system, officially dubbed by the Los Angeles Superior Court as Pre-Arraignment Release Protocols, or PARP, largely eliminates the existing cash bail system for all but the most serious of crimes. Most people arrested on suspicion on non-violent or non-serious offenses will either be cited and released in the field or booked and released at a police or sheriff's station with orders to appear in court on a specific date for arraignment once they are actually charged with a crime.

Arrestees who are believed to present a heightened threat to the public or be a flight risk will be referred to a magistrate judge, who will review the case and determine whether the person should be held in custody pending arraignment or released under non-financial restrictions such as electronic monitoring.

Once a person is charged and appears in court for arraignment, a judge could change or revoke the defendant's release conditions.

On Friday, 12 L.A. County cities including Whittier announced a lawsuit designed to block the policy.

They sought an injunction to postpone implementation of the new bail schedule, and says it was backed by Arcadia, Artesia, Covina, Downey, Glendora, Industry, Lakewood, La Verne, Palmdale, Santa Fe Springs and Vernon.

"This zero-bail schedule is just another policy that leaves us less safe than we should be," Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

It's unclear when that legal challenge will be heard.

The new system is borne from long-held criticism that cash bail favored the rich, meaning well-heeled people arrested for even the most serious of crimes could pay their way out of jail, while low-income people languished behind bars for far lesser offenses. The new system is based not on cash, but on the risk an offender presents to public safety or the possibility the person might fail to appear in court.

The county implemented a zero-bail system during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to prevent crowding in jails. Then in May, a Los Angeles judge issued a preliminary injunction essentially reinstating the system by ordering an end to cash bail by the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments.

The Los Angeles Superior Court in July announced plans for the PARP system, with Presiding Judge Samantha Jessner saying, "A person's ability to pay a large sum of money should not be the determining factor in deciding whether that person, who is presumed innocent, stays in jail before trial or is released."

But the idea of zero-bail has generated public safety questions -- with some county supervisors recently noting that their offices have been swamped with calls from residents concerned about the system, particularly following a recent wave of mob-style smash-and-grab burglaries and reports of suspects in those crimes being arrested but then quickly released, only to commit new crimes.

The sheriff's department says those arrested for sexual offenses, domestic violence and offenses involving weapons will be exempt from the zero-bail policy. Some suspects would need to get immediate hearings in front of a magistrate.

The question is whether there will be enough personnel to deal with the additional work.

"What we don't want to see is a backlog of presumptive innocent people sitting in jail just because they can't see the magistrate," Stein said. "So we hope that the court does have adequate staffing for that."

City News Service contributed to this report.