LA County Will Try Bail Reform, But Critics Say It's Going About It All Wrong

(Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for UNITAS)

Los Angeles County is moving ahead with a bail reform pilot program, despite warnings from criminal justice reform advocates that the program's reliance on computerized risk assessment tools will perpetuate racial discrimination against defendants.

There are some 7,500 inmates in L.A.'s jails on any given day waiting for their trials. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the $17 million pre-trial release program, which seeks to increase the number of inmates who can safely be released before trial.

Under the two-year pilot program, every person who is arrested and held for arraignment will qualify.

Officials will conduct assessments using two separate tools that rely on computer algorithms to measure risk to the community.

A judge will receive at least one of the assessments at arraignment, while some defendants will have two different assessments. Those deemed low risk will be released without bail on their promise to reappear at future hearings. The judge can also request that those individuals get certain services, like mental health referrals.

The County Probation Department will oversee the pilot.

Critics of cash bail have long argued that it discriminates against poorer defendants, and can cause people to lose their jobs and get evicted. A new state law that would largely eliminate cash bail is on hold; the bail bond industry got enough signatures to place a measure on the November ballot that would kill the law.

JusticeLA, a coalition of advocacy groups, wrote a letter to the supervisors opposing the pilot, arguing that numerous experts have argued that risk assessment tools are inherently discriminatory.

The coalition noted that the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Maryland think tank, has reevaluated its previous support of risk assessment tools, and now says they should never be used. In a Feb. 7 statement, the Institute said the tools "are derived from data reflecting structural racism and institutional inequity," and their use "deepens the inequity."

The algorithms used in the risk assessment tools "are the same kind that they used historically to determine if somebody was eligible for home insurance or something like that," said JusticeLA spokesman Lex Steppling.

JusticeLA also said the Probation Department should not oversee the pilot, because it's already struggling to manage its current budget and facilities.

LA County's jails on a typical day hold some 17,500 inmates, with about 44 percent of them behind bars awaiting trial.

The money for the pilot project comes from a grant of state money via the Judicial Council of California. The legislature provided $75 million statewide for 10 counties to try pilot bail reform programs.