Will LA Keep Zero Bail For Now? DA Lacey Says It Should

Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

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California's Judicial Council has ordered an end to its emergency "zero bail" program, which has helped dramatically reduce the jail inmate population during the coronavirus pandemic. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, however, wants to extend the program, which has compelled courts to stop requiring people accused of a misdemeanor or low-level felony to pay bail to get out of jail.

The program is now slated to end June 20.

Lacey said she supports the council's decision to allow individual counties to decide whether to continue the program. For L.A., she said, the answer is clear.

"In L.A. County, we believe COVID is still an issue," Lacey told us. That's especially true in the crowded jails, where more than 3,400 inmates remain under quarantine.

Lacey, Public Defender Ricardo Garcia and Alternate Public Defender Erika Anzoategui have signed a letter asking Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile to extend zero bail. A spokesman for Brazile declined to comment.

Public defenders argued for the extension of zero bail statewide over concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in jails, but also because they believe non-violent people awaiting arraignment or trial languish simply because they're too poor to make bail.


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PLENTY OF CRITICS

Zero bail has plenty of critics — especially in the law enforcement community. Police chiefs and sheriffs across the state worry it puts dangerous criminals back on the streets, and they point to people who were released only to commit another crime.

Lacey said she's sympathetic to that perspective, adding that she prefers any extension of the program give judges more discretion.

"I'd want the judge to look at whether they were out on zero bail and continued to commit crimes," she said.

Lacey's challenger in the November election said he supports extending the program as is.

"Crime has continued to go down while we have released an unprecedented number of people," Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said. "That really indicates we were incarcerating a lot of low-level offenders that were not violent, that were not necessarily a threat to any of us."

Lacey said the verdict remains out on whether zero bail has affected crime rates.

"It's too early to tell," Lacey said. "We still have a lot of stay-at-home orders. Businesses are just now starting to open up."

The district attorney added she is open to the possibility of zero bail beyond COVID-19. "After coronavirus, I'm going to take a good hard look at whether to continue," she said

Over the past few years, bail reform has become a central issue in the effort to reform the criminal justice system.

The Bail Reform Project, which seeks to reduce or pay for bail for poor defendants, will expand from a pilot project to all L.A. courthouses, according to public defender Garcia.

In November, California voters will decide whether to repeal a statewide bail reform law that would replace cash bail with a risk assessment tool to determine whether someone is safe to release into the community while awaiting trial. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2018, but it's on hold until after the election.

The measure would hit the bail bonds industry hard — that's why it backed the ballot initiative for its repeal.