Public Defenders Across Calif. Urge State Supreme Court to Uphold its 2021 Bail Ruling and to Reject Efforts to Undermine It



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Public Defenders Across Calif. Urge State Supreme Court to Uphold its 2021 Bail Ruling and to Reject Efforts to Undermine It

Lower courts have been disregarding high court’s ruling that brought more fairness to bail process

SAN FRANCISCO — Public Defenders across California are urging the California Supreme Court to stop lower courts from undermining its landmark 2021 ruling in Humphrey, which held that setting bail at an amount a person cannot afford is unconstitutional

Despite the High Court’s Humphrey ruling, many courts continued detaining accused individuals by setting bail they cannot afford. Now, a 2022 appeals court ruling, known as Kowalczyk, also threatens to undermine Humphrey. The California Supreme Court has accepted Kowalczyk for review, and a coalition of public defenders filed an amicus brief Nov. 7 urging the California Supreme Court to reverse Kowalczyk and strongly affirm its Humphrey ruling. Misdemeanor cases form a huge portion of California criminal court matters, so the way the High Court rules in the Kowalczyk case could affect hundreds of thousands of Californians. 

“The California Supreme Court should be offended by the Kowalczyk court’s unwarranted expansion of pretrial detention, which thwarts the High Court’s clear directive in Humphrey that setting unaffordable bail is unconstitutional,” said Sujung Kim, manager of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Research Unit. “The Supreme Court should overturn Kowalczyk, which emboldens courts across the state to continue disregarding and misinterpreting Humphrey, placing hundreds of thousands of Californians at risk of pretrial detention simply because they are poor. The High Court must set a bright-line rule that folks charged with non-violent misdemeanor crimes should never be jailed pretrial.” 

The amicus coalition includes the California Public Defenders Association, Alameda and San Francisco counties’ Public Defender offices, and the Los Angeles County Alternate Defender’s office.

The Humphrey ruling sets out limited circumstances under which a person accused of a crime can be detained pretrial. Kowalczyk effectively expands those exceptions. However, the California Constitution and state law have long enshrined the right to bail as a mechanism for release in all offenses except death penalty cases. In its amicus brief, the coalition of state public defender organizations argue that Kowalczyk, if upheld, would result in a dramatic and unjust expansion of pretrial detentions.  

“Most people recognize that it’s not fair to have a two-tiered legal system—one for the poor, who get detained pretrial because they can’t afford bail, and one for the rich, who can,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “Unnecessarily detaining people pretrial or setting unaffordable money bail takes a severe financial toll on people and their families, and exacerbates the legal system’s already egregious racial inequities.” 

Pretrial detention is expensive, destabilizes people’s lives and gives prosecutors an unfair advantage in plea negotiations, as people in jail are more likely to plead to a crime, even if they are innocent, so they can get out of jail. In Humphrey, the California Supreme Court recognized that “the disadvantages to remaining incarcerated pending resolution of criminal charges are immense and profound.” 

“In a time when many politicians are stoking fears around public safety, it’s important to realize that detaining individuals pretrial is actually more likely to result in a person becoming involved with the criminal legal system again,” said Kathleen Guneratne, assistant public defender at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. “If we are serious about making our legal system less racist and about making communities stronger and safer, we need to make sure our courts are not rolling back pretrial protections.”