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Judge reinstates ‘zero bail’ policy in Los Angeles

Originally published: The Appeal on May 18, 2023 by Meg O'Connor (more by The Appeal)  | (Posted May 23, 2023)

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction this week preventing the city and county of Los Angeles from forcing people charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses to pay money bail before being arraigned in order to be released from custody.

The decision comes as part of a class action lawsuit filed last year arguing that the current “wealth-based detention system” in Los Angeles is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six people who say they suffered negative consequences because they could not afford bail, including missed employment opportunities and being forced to go without prescription medication for days while in jail.

“Enforcing the secured money bail schedules against poor people who are detained in jail solely for the reason of their poverty is a clear, pervasive, and serious constitutional violation,” wrote Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff in the 58-page decision.

Evidence shows the preliminary injunction will reduce the incidence of new criminal activity and failures to appear for future court proceedings.

The injunction will go into effect on May 24. It prohibits officials in Los Angeles from setting money bail as a condition of release for some people before arraignment. The injunction does not apply to people who have been arrested for capital offenses or serious or violent felonies, those who have an open, unresolved criminal case or an arrest warrant, or individuals who would otherwise be ineligible for bail under California law.

Riff stated that the plaintiffs had produced “a vast amount of evidence” via expert witnesses and over a dozen academic studies, which decisively showed that “money bail regimes are associated with increased crime and increased FTAs [failures to appear] as compared with unsecured bail or release on non-financial conditions.”

Further, Riff wrote,

evidence demonstrates that secured money bail, as now utilized in Los Angeles County, is itself ‘criminogenic’–that is, secured money bail causes more crime than would be the case were the money bail schedules no longer enforced.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Los Angeles implemented a zero cash bail policy for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to reduce overcrowding in its jails. This injunction essentially reinstates that policy.

The injunction will remain in effect for 60 days while the city and county of Los Angeles develop “constitutionally sound” plans and procedures—like pretrial supervision or electronic monitoring—for the pre-arraignment release of people who have been arrested. The parties must file a joint report detailing these procedures by July 5. On July 10, the court will hold a hearing on the feasibility of implementing those procedures.

“Los Angeles is safer without bail schedules because their administration injected incredible instability into the lives of our residents and our communities, costing people their jobs, their housing, their parental rights, and even their lives,” said Jeremy Cherson, director of communications for The Bail Project, in a press release.

We are hopeful that as this case proceeds that Los Angeles will finally move towards a more humane pretrial system where pretrial freedom is not determined by the amount of money in a person’s bank account.

Meg O’Connor covers police, prosecutors, and the criminal legal system.

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