Texts and mental health services could replace cash bail in LA

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“It puts plenty of people in jail who have no reason to be there simply because they're poor,” says Civil Rights Corps attorney Salil Dudani about LA’s cash bail practice, which was temporarily blocked by a judge this month. Photo by Shutterstock.

Starting Wednesday, the city and county of LA are temporarily banned from keeping some people behind bars before they’ve been arraigned if they can’t afford to pay bail.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted the preliminary injunction after a months-long hearing, saying in his decision that keeping people locked up because of cash bail is a “clear, pervasive, and serious constitutional violation.”

The bombshell ruling would only apply to nonviolent, low-level offenses and essentially returns LA back to its COVID-era zero cash bail policy, which expired last summer in both the city and county

The decision was issued in a class-action lawsuit that seeks to end cash bail altogether, and it was filed on behalf of six Angelenos who were jailed pretrial because they weren’t able to pay bail. 

The two sides in the lawsuit, which also names the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the LA Police Department as defendants, now have 60 days to come up with alternatives to the pre-arraignment cash bail practice.  

One of the attorneys working on the lawsuit, Salil Dudani with the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, discusses the importance of the decision and what’s next. 

How does the cash bail system work in LA? 

Dudani: When the police arrest a person in LA, there's literally a price set for that person's release … based only on the offense that the arresting officer claims [the person] committed. If you can pay that price, you're out of jail right away. If you can't afford that bail amount, you're stuck in jail — away from your children, your loved ones, your job, [and] your mental and physical health care. 

Eventually, you're given a hearing in court [and a] lawyer, [but] that doesn't happen for up to two to five days in LA County. In many cases, people will never have a judge see their case because the moment a prosecutor actually looks at the file, they'll see there's nothing there, and they won't even file any criminal charge. But by that point … you may have lost your job [and] gone through all the trauma of being in jail. 

It puts plenty of people in jail who have no reason to be there simply because they're poor.

Why is the ruling historic?

It's the first time a judge in California has held an exhaustive trial on whether secured money bail actually works. What the judge concluded is what people in the field already know: Money bail is bad for public safety. 

Study after study has found for decades that using money bail does not diminish re-arrests, it does not boost appearance in court, and actually it has the opposite effect. 

It makes people less likely to show up in court, and it makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future. That's because being in jail, even just for a period of a few or several days, is so destabilizing to people's lives, that they're more likely to commit crimes in the future. People are separated from their children and other dependent loved ones and can even lose custody of their children, plenty of people lose their housing, and people are significantly more likely to plead guilty just because they are stuck in jail … even if they aren’t guilty. 

Some in law enforcement say doing away with cash bail will result in more crime, and cite a Yolo County study that found that 70% of people released under the pandemic zero bail policy were arrested again following their release. Is that criticism valid?

[It] isn't an academic study like what [the plaintiffs] actually relied on in court, and what actually passes for evidence in a court of law.

When you don't just cherry pick a few cases like the Yolo County district attorney did in order to make a political point, what the actual evidence shows is that if you compare two people — one who's released on secured money bail and one who's not who are otherwise similarly situated — that the person on money bail is no more likely to appear in court, and no less likely to be arrested [that the other].

What alternatives are in place? 

There are plenty of alternatives that we know work better. For example, the simple step of sending someone a text message to remind them of a court date. … They tried this in New York City, for example, and just sending a text message reduced missed court dates by 26%. Court reminders are one example of a successful pretrial policy. 

There also needs to be investment in services that are alternatives to incarceration: mental health services and all kinds of other support a person actually needs to succeed during the pretrial process.There has been a lot of study in LA County [on] successful [criminal justice reform] programs, like the ones through the Office of Diversion and Reentry. What we find is that giving people the support and services they actually need is a much more cost-effective way of improving public safety outcomes than putting people in jail pretrial, or requiring money bail. 




Matt Guilhem


Tara Atrian