Orange County Considers Bail Changes

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Orange County officials are considering a pilot program that would integrate evidence-based risk assessment into the county’s bail setting practices.

“Bail is not a nearly perfect system,” Judge Charles Margines, assistant presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court, recently told the Orange County Register. “Bail is a one-dimensional look at the risk.”

If the new evidence-based risk assessment bail method is approved the county would use a test developed by criminal justice experts to determine each defendant’s risk level as well as their likelihood of returning for court dates, according to the Orange County Register. Rather than depending entirely on the crime committed or the individual’s financial ability to post bail, the revised bail method would also consider things like employment status, residency, criminal history and drug use. Those deemed eligible for alternative forms of bail could be assigned to report to a probation officer or to wear a GPS anklet based on the judge’s discretion, according to the Register. Additionally, the program would apply exclusively to those accused of lower level felonies or misdemeanors.

Aside from bringing more socioeconomic equity to bail setting, Orange County Undersheriff Steve Kea told the Register in late November that instituting risk assessment in bail practices could also have a direct impact on the county’s correctional budget. Kea said that more than half of the county’s 6,700 inmates are being held as a result of their inability to ineligibility to post the required bond. He also estimated that 300 or more beds could open up in the county jail should the new bail practices go into effect.

Currently the county spends $118 per inmate per day in housing costs. Should the program eliminate those 300 beds as projected, the county could stand to save more than $12 million in holding costs annually. Officials are now seeking the support of related departments including the county’s public defenders, probation department and the district attorney.

Representatives from the bail bonds community, however, have argued that such a revision of the current bail setting methods could pose a danger to the public and impact their businesses. Those in the bail bonds industry have also cautioned that in some cases the county may have to take on the costs of finding those who do not return for court dates, a cost generally shouldered by the bail bondsmen.

Several other California counties have already adopted risk assessment in bail proceedings. Additionally, starting in January 2015, all Maine law enforcement will begin applying a 13-question evaluation for deciding to jail or bail those accused of domestic violence crimes specifically.