Sunday, November 4, 2012

California considers pretrial diversion as cost saver

Pretrial programs in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz allow nonviolent defendants who cannot afford bail to continue living at home, to work and to care for their children while they await trial, reported the San Fransisco Chronicle.

As county jails around California swell with inmates, some are pushing counties and the state to adopt similar programs that would let qualified detainees out of jail without having to post bail.

Advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and some Democratic lawmakers, say the programs promote both public safety and justice by using scientific evaluations to help judges decide whether it is safe to release a defendant before they go to trial. The current bail system, they say, favors wealth and strands low-income people behind bars because they cannot afford bail amounts. They also argue that a defendant who gets out of jail is less likely to accept a plea deal and has a better chance of an acquittal or a shorter sentence if they go to trial.

According to the Chronicle, Opponents, including the bail bond industry and some law enforcement and victims rights groups, say defendants pose a lesser flight risk when they have to put up money for a bail bond and that pretrial programs pose a risk to public safety, because they do not focus on the crime a person is charged with.

Under the programs, nonviolent defendants who qualify for pretrial release are either freed on their own recognizance - that is, only a promise to appear, though often there are restrictions on their behavior - or placed on supervised release, which can range from mandated group therapy to probation-like check-ins or electronic monitoring.

In San Francisco, for example, someone placed on supervised release may have to go to an anger management group once a week until the case is adjudicated and will have a case manager checking in to make sure that person appears in court.

Supporters say these programs are crucial, especially since 62 percent of county jail beds in California are filled with pretrial detainees, according to state records available online. In 32 counties, jails are filled to capacity, and some sheriffs are releasing convicted criminals early to keep crowding down.

Allen Hopper, criminal justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California, told the Chronicle pretrial programs save taxpayer dollars and ensure that jail beds are filled with people already convicted of crimes, not those "who are presumed, under our constitutional form of government, innocent until proven guilty."

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