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California moving closer to a zero-bail system for misdemeanors, low-level felonies

It's now up to the State Assembly to pass a companion bill before this legislation could be submitted to the governor for his signature

Cash bail in California may soon become a thing of the past for misdemeanors and many non-violent felonies.

The state senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would require that judges set zero bail for these crimes.

Supporters of the move say that the cash bail system is unconstitutional, unfairly penalizing communities of color. 

But critics countered that doing away with bail puts the public at risk. The legislation is modeled after the state Judicial Council's temporary move last year to set bail at zero during the height of the pandemic, to keep jail populations low to curb the spread of COVID.

"It is fair, it is just and we must act now," said State Senator Robert Hertzberg (D- Senate District 18), who authored the bill. 

In a 28 to 8 vote, the state senate passed this wide-sweeping bill promising to restructure California's criminal justice system, setting bail at zero for all misdemeanors and all "low-level" felonies. Under the terms of the legislation, certain felonies, such as violent crimes, hate crimes and human trafficking, would not qualify for zero bail.

"The current system of money bail is obsolete, unconstitutional and fundamentally broken, and costs us millions of dollars without keeping us any safer," Hertzberg said. 

Advocates argue that cash bail unfairly punishes those who can not afford to pay for their freedom, disproportionately impacting communities of color.

One study out of the Bay Area by the nonprofit Haywood Burns Institute finds that African-American adults are 11 times more likely to be booked into jail than white adults.

"I don't think I'm the only one who sees it as inherently unfair. I know society now is really paying attention," said Dolores Canales with The Bail Project, a nonprofit that has helped more than 17,000 people nationwide make bail. 

She said the murder of George Floyd last year and the racial reckoning that followed helped shine a light on this issue.

"I think it sparked something where even people with their heads in the sand in the past could no longer deny what was going on with racial inequity with pre-trial incarceration," Canales told News 8.

Critics of this legislation, however, argue that abandoning bail in many cases could jeopardize public safety. 

"Bail is a very useful tool," said state senator Jim Nielsen (R- Senate District 4), adding that requiring bail ensures those accused will show up to court, holding them more accountable.

"I don't agree that everybody will just show up," Nielsen said. "The record doesn't really support that. Many skip bail."

It's now up to the State Assembly to pass a companion bill before this legislation would be submitted to the governor for his signature.

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