Bail reform frees more suspects
When Grass Valley Police Sgt. Clint Bates arrested Tristen Peterson, 24, on June 2 for fentanyl and heroin possession, he quickly realized he was dealing with a very familiar face.
Peterson had been arrested just a month earlier for allegedly stealing a vehicle and selling fentanyl, Xanax and methaphmetamine. And just two days before his June 2 arrest, Grass Valley officers had arrested Peterson yet again — for more drug charges, Bates said.
Such cases are leaving many Nevada County residents, including members of law enforcement, confused and upset as to new county bail policies that allow defendants to get out of custody quickly, reoffend, and then be released in what some officials call a “revolving door” of repeat offenders.
“We’ve had cases where we’re arresting someone two or even three times a day, and that can be extremely frustrating,” said Grass Valley Capt. Steve Johnson. “I can confirm that many law enforcement officers are upset about the seeming ‘revolving door’ that takes place with these people getting out of custody,” Johnson said of cases like Peterson.
Peterson has not been convicted on any of these charges, and he was able to make his bail, according to his attorney. Nonetheless, his case is reflective of how recent court rulings, along with Nevada County’s 2019 pretrial program — a program that all but ended cash bail for lower-level offenders — have made it difficult for authorities to keep those offenders in custody.
Some legal experts are hailing the new bail reforms as progressive reforms, but officials like Johnson worry that that the reforms are being exploited by multitudes of lower-level offenders.
“These cases have changed the landscape of bail in California. We’re essentially moving towards a time as a state where we have no cash bail,” said Deputy District Attorney Casey Ayer.
Under the county’s pretrial program, a person who cannot afford bail cannot be kept in custody after their arrest except in cases when prosecutors can prove that this person is a serious danger to the public or a flight risk, according to Ayer.
In March, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that essentially confirmed Nevada County’s bail reform on a statewide level, ordering that judges release suspects who can’t afford bail unless they pose significant risks.
In practice, this means that a significant number of lower-level offenders are being released on zero dollar bail immediately after their arrest, as judges have no legal basis for keeping them in custody, Ayers said.
Some criminal justice experts have praised the state court’s ruling, calling it a rebuke to a system that has unjustly favored defendants with the means to bail out of custody, regardless of their actual alleged offense or threat level.
Public Defender Keri Klein expressed support for the March ruling as well as Nevada County’s 2019 bail reform law.
“People are finally relying on science instead of knee-jerk reactions to criminal activity,” she said. “I believe that the criminal system has unfairly treated poor people the entire time it’s been around. Why are our poorest citizens the ones being dragged into court? Just because you have more money, it doesn’t mean you’re not committing crimes.”
Defense attorney Jennifer Granger, based in Nevada City, agreed with Klein.
“When people are incarcerated, they can’t work, they can lose housing, they can have problem with child custody issues, and there’s a whole host of other consequences,” Granger said.
Pretrial services stipulated under the county’s 2019 law are a better alternative to jail for most defendants, Granger said. Such services include electronic monitoring of defendants, mandatory check-ins with pretrial release officers, and court-ordered self-help programs in certain cases.
“The pretrial program is great because it helps the court and the community stay safe, and it also helps the court keep track of people,” she said, adding that it costs the county less to use pretrial services than keeping people in jail.
CHANCE TO REOFFEND?
Some authorities aren’t as enthusiastic about the reforms.
When it comes to repeat offenders who commit lower-level crimes but can’t afford bail, the new laws have made it almost impossible for authorities to stop them from reoffending, Ayer said.
“What the court ruling and these other laws mean is that these repeat offenders can keep getting released until they commit a serious felony because of their inability to pay,” Ayers said, noting that police officers on the ground bear the brunt of dealing with defendants who reoffend.
“We’re becoming concerned about these low level contacts, about the significant amount of resources that these people are taking up. They’re in and out of hospitals, jails and police services,” she said.
While ending cash bail for lower-income defendants is something most law enforcement leaders would support in theory, the policy has had mixed results in Nevada County, according to Capt. Johnson.
In a noticeable number of instances, his officers have arrested someone they believed would reoffend based on the person’s history, only to see that defendant be freed and put more people in danger, Johnson said. The captain added that some of those cases included more serious offenders who were freed through the pretrial program.
“In those cases, we booked someone we knew would reoffend if released, and in a law enforcement community we wouldn’t have rated these suspects as low risk. Our fears were confirmed when that person reoffended and placed the public in danger or victimized someone, or placed our officers in danger,” he said.
While acknowledging that most reoffenders are not those accused of serious crimes, Johnson said the changes to bail law seem to have resulted in an increase in “quality of life” crimes in Nevada County. Such offenses are considered crimes that don’t directly endanger people but are still a nuisance to society — trespassing, petty theft, loitering.
“Those kind of offenders who may have had a low bail in the past but would not have bailed out in the past are now getting out sooner, and therefore many of those people are reoffending in same way,” he said.
Despite these concerns, Johnson also spoke of some advantages to the reforms. Jails have historically been overburdened by multitudes of non-serious offenders, who stay in custody too long because they can’t afford bail, an issue remedied by these reforms, Johnson said.
Additionally, more serious offenders who are wealthy no longer have a get-out-of jail-free card on the basis of their ability to pay, the captain noted. This is because new pretrial standards keep such defendants in custody regardless of income level, due to the assessed seriousness of their offense.
Granger dismissed the notion that bail reforms would create a “revolving door” for reoffenders, and emphasized that such thinking ignores the presumption of innocence that defendants are entitled to.
“Over half the people in jail are pretrial, so most people in jail have not yet had an opportunity to have their case litigated. There are many, many people whose cases eventually get dismissed or they are found not guilty,” she said.
“These people have been arrested — not convicted. If you don’t know the facts of their case, there’s a realm of possibilities for defense, and their arrest could end up being a mistake. You have a constitutional right to trial, and these people are pretrial detainees. It doesn’t mean they have been convicted or will be found guilty.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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