Troubled Judges Group Holding Up Bail Reform

By Jeff Adachi

California is on the precipice of overhauling its unjust bail system. Now, a group of judges, currently in apology mode over a party where revelers ridiculed incarcerated people of color, is lobbying for a watered down bail reform bill.

The Judicial Council of California last month sent a six-page letter to the lawmakers detailing its “significant concerns” regarding Senate Bill 10.

If passed, SB 10 would largely eliminate the money bail scheme and replace it with a system in which pretrial release is determined by public safety rather than wealth. Its passage would be a rare victory for fairness in a system that routinely overlooks the poor and people of color. It would implement a risk assessment tool based on empirical data and beef up pretrial services to allow those charged with minor offenses to keep their jobs, housing, and custody of their children.

But the Judicial Council claims in its letter that SB10 would create “an overly burdensome and complicated system.”

While balancing individual liberties, constitutional rights, criminal procedure, and public safety is indeed complicated, there is nothing overly burdensome about taking steps to ensure we do not systematically deprive poor people of their liberty.

The Judicial Council, after all, is responsible for “ensuring the independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice.”

The Council also complains that SB10 will deprive judges of criminal history and other important information needed to decide who goes home and who languishes behind bars. That is simply false. In San Francisco, where risk assessment is already in use, the program explicitly factors in relevant parts of a person’s criminal history in its recommendation. In addition, prosecutors regularly argue for judges to override the empirically-generated recommendation in specific cases of concern.

But now judges are balking at having to state reasons on the record for locking up a person determined to be low risk. This is the height of arrogance, and displays utter indifference to the plight of poor people who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Finally, the Judicial Council defends the status quo by stating the courts lack the resources to implement the changes to meet the bill’s timeline. But it’s ludicrous to argue that because some counties don’t have existing pretrial services offices, we should just continue to jail everyone. The answer is to move toward something more data driven, humane, cost-effective, and protective of constitutional rights.

Unsurprisingly, the bail bonds industry is cheering the Judicial Council’s letter.
The Council, a bloated policymaking body that spends thousands of dollars lobbying on behalf of judges, is out of touch with the people who would be most affected by bail reform.

That was apparent in a story that broke last week about a Halloween party hosted by the Judicial Council. Photos showed employees in the Council’s Sacramento office wearing orange jumpsuits, dark makeup, and in one case a dreadlock wig and Hannibal Lecter mask.

It should be stated that the non-black revelers who darkened their faces weren’t judges. But the Judicial Council thought their antics were impressive enough to give them an award for Best Decorations. These decorations included a ghoulish doll sitting on a toilet in a solitary cell while being watched on closed circuit television by a guard. The photos were posted on the organization’s intranet before disappearing without explanation. A black longtime employee’s complaints about the debacle went unanswered. Many African American staffers further complained that the Council bungled this year’s Black History Month, refusing to allow a field trip to a museum’s Black Panthers exhibit and banishing the annual celebration to the basement.

There’s nothing funny about mass incarceration. A system riddled with profound racial disparities, in which those who can’t afford bail plead guilty just to get out of jail, is no laughing matter. Rather than living up to its mission of ensuring impartial justice, the Judicial Council is serving as an obstacle to true reform.