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Nevada County pretrial program to prioritize public safety

John Orona
Staff Writer

Nevada County Superior Court will experiment with a pretrial pilot program that reduces the need for bail by basing an arrestee’s release before trial on their risk to the community rather than their disposable income.

In 2018 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10, which would eliminate cash bail in favor of pretrial risk assessments that give judges discretion on whether to release someone charged with a crime pending their trial. In January, a referendum that would overturn that bill and add the right to cash bail to the state’s constitution qualified for the November 2020 ballot, halting the 2018 law’s implementation pending that vote.

While most Californians will await the results of the November 2020 election to determine the fate of the state’s cash bail system, Nevada County is one of 16 counties selected for the pilot program that would allow judges to release people charged with a crime based on a risk assessment tool that calculates a person’s likelihood to re-offend and fail to appear for their court date.

“There’s no outcomes that say cash bail will make someone appear for court or any less likely to commit another crime,” Probation Program Manager Jeff Goldman said. “Should SB10 pass, we’ll already have all our ducks in a row. We’ll already have that system in place.”

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The program stems from the Judicial Council of California, the rule-making arm of the California court system, which determined in 2017 that “California’s current pretrial release and detention system unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety because it bases a person’s liberty on financial resources rather than the likelihood of future criminal behavior and exacerbates socioeconomic disparities and racial bias.”

The council also found pretrial detention affects case and sentencing outcomes, employment, housing, access to health care and child custody.

According to the Jail Population Trends dashboard of the Board of State and Community Corrections, about two-thirds of California’s average daily jail population hasn’t been sentenced, including those who would not be eligible for release by bail or through the pretrial program.

In Nevada County, during the first six months of 2019, the rate of non-sentenced inmates was more than 75%.

Assessment

Nevada County has experimented with pretrial programs since 2014, but early on was too selective until altering to bring the eligible pretrial population to about 40%, a figure Goldman said was still too limited.

“In 2014 the attempt was very restrictive,” Goldman said, “No people qualified.”

As part of its new program, inmates’ information will be run through a risk assessment tool, Ce Pretrial, that will consider their criminal history, the person’s charges, employment, substance use, residence and age to calculate their risk. Additionally, an interview will occur. A judge — or probation officer for those with low-risk assessments — will then will determine inmate release terms within 12 hours of an inmate’s booking.

According to Chief Probation Officer Mike Ertola, the program will reduce the number of people in jail, free up resources and increase efficiency.

“The two most important ways to reduce recidivism is a full jail re-entry program and a full pretrial program,” Ertola said at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting.

Officials said the program would also “level the playing field” on bail amounts that can vary in the tens of thousands of dollars between counties and center the focus on public safety and the presumption of innocence.

According to the judicial council, under the cash bail system hundreds of high-risk defendants in California are able to bail out of custody regardless of their threat to public safety.

“Right now if you commit a very serious crime and you have the money to post bail, you can still get out,” Goldman said.

While the program will give the county an opportunity to make adjustments and prepare a system if SB10 becomes law, if the law is struck down the county would have to find alternative funding to continue its pretrial system.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.


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