In California, people who are arrested and incarcerated in jail often face arbitrary bail amounts that can be very different depending on which county you happen to be arrested in. Instead of functioning as a fair process for release, bail often functions as a preventative detention tool, because most people do not have the resources to pay their bail amounts.
This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people held in California jails who have not been convicted of a crime. Often these are people of color and poor people. But what alternatives to paying the financial conditions of bail exist, and how would arrestees or the public even know about them?
In 2016, Santa Clara County reviewed the information that was available to people newly arrested, and saw only advertisements for commercial bail and private attorneys posted in the county jail near most of the phones available for use. We believe this led people to assume the only way out of jail was to pay a bail agent or possibly plead guilty in order to be released. Staff in our Office of Pretrial Services (PTS)—as well as the offices of Reentry Services, the Public Defender, and the Sheriff—did not believe this was acceptable. With the help of the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, we sought to change this by instituting our No Cost Release Campaign.
We recognize being arrested and going through the booking procedure is highly stressful and traumatic. We also recognize that most people may believe their quickest release option is through the commercial bail industry. Many detainees have jobs, housing, and dependents counting on them and all of these could be jeopardized by spending time in custody.
This campaign seeks to inform those arrested, their families, and the public that there are free alternatives to commercial bail. Through posters, brochures, a web page, and looped videos in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, we advertised the free alternatives to commercial bail offered through PTS. The campaign also informs detainees of their right to counsel through the Public Defender’s Office (PDO), and other community-based resources available through the Office of Reentry Services (ORS).
Despite existing since 1969, the options available through PTS were not widely known to the general public. This campaign maximizes access to that information by targeting our local jail system, from the lobbies and booking areas to inmate dormitories. We also dispersed the informational materials to county departments, community partners, stakeholder agencies, and the general public. The video will also be broadcast on local public television channels.
The Sheriff’s Office has further made the materials available for review during the booking process. Clients then become active participants in the release process by completing the voluntary interview with PTS. Eligible defendants can have their case reviewed for potential release on their own recognizance (OR) or supervised own recognizance (SORP) during the pre-arraignment process. These services do not cost the individual, their family, or friends any money. By contrast, paying a commercial bail agent typically involves paying 10 percent of the total bond, which is non-refundable regardless of the disposition of the case or if they show up for all their court appearances.
Pretrial justice reform continues to evolve in Santa Clara County. The Safety and Justice Challenge grant came at an opportune time for rallying support for this campaign following Santa Clara’s published recommendations in the Final Consensus Report on Optimal Pretrial Justice in August of 2016. Stakeholder support has been essential as we have worked toward implementing these recommendations for reform. In recent years, Santa Clara County has initiated many cross-department collaborations creating fertile ground for implementing the No Cost Release Campaign which serves to further these reform efforts.
To measure the campaign’s impact, stakeholders will collect data regarding the use of these jail release alternatives in order to identify gaps in service or opportunities to improve the overall process. We are expecting substantial benefits to individuals, public safety, county resources, and the community. The Sheriff’s Department is collecting data regarding the number of cases released on OR or SORP, on financial bail, and other release types while PTS is reviewing individuals’ awareness of the campaign at the time of booking. For those released on OR/SORP, Pretrial Services will also collect data on the number of individuals showing up for all court appearances and will track the number of individuals not rearrested prior to the completion of their supervision term.
Through this No Cost Release campaign we strive to reduce the number of people in our jails who are simply waiting for their cases to be heard. By informing the public of their rights and options we make our criminal justice system a more just and equitable system for all.