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Sonoma County Superior Court appoints two lawyers to lead bail-alternative program

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Sonoma County Superior Court’s presiding judge has appointed two commissioners to oversee a new program to help some people get out of jail sooner without having to put up cash or property as bail.

Presiding Judge Bradford DeMeo tapped defense attorney and former Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy Paul Lozada and research attorney Kenneth English, who has been among those helping shepherd the program from its inception.

The pretrial release program creates a faster alternative to the cash bail system that is increasingly viewed as unfairly punishing the poor while allowing potentially dangerous people with means to get out of jail.

“It’s a fundamental change in how people are considered for release from custody,” DeMeo said. “It’s now giving indigent defendants the opportunity to be released within the same time frame that someone with means can post bail and be released. It really equalizes that option and opportunity.”

The new program is paid for with a $5.76 million grant from the Judicial Council of California.

Together with a new team of probation officers, the commissioners will oversee a system for evaluating whether a recent arrestee should remain incarcerated for public safety purposes or if that individual likely will successfully follow court orders while free.

That evaluation is expected to take place within about 12 hours of a person’s arrest, or sooner when possible, DeMeo said. A key goal is to limit disruptions to family and work obligations that can further complicate people’s lives when they are facing criminal charges but have not been convicted.

Currently, the first chance an arrestee might be released is at an arraignment hearing when a judge reads the arresting charges, which can happen days after being jailed. Under the new program, expected to begin by June, that evaluation will take place before arraignment.

California was poised to abolish the money bail system in 2018 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to do so. But implementation of the new law has been stalled by a referendum effort largely supported by the bail bond industry putting the matter before voters in November.

Other critics of abolishing money bail warn that pretrial assessments being put in place as an alternative also risk bias against minorities because of the data points — such as prior arrests — used to predict violence or flight risk.

But getting low-risk individuals out of jail sooner has been fundamental to California’s decadeslong push toward reforming the criminal justice system and stemming the tide of a prison overcrowding crisis.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has also recommended to end the money bail system, propelled by a 2017 report she commissioned that concluded bail compromises public safety by allowing financial resources to be the main indicator whether a person stays in jail.

A majority of people in jail are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted and sentenced for the crimes they’re accused of committing.

About 65% of inmates at the Sonoma County Jail had not yet been sentenced, according to last week’s data on the local jail population, the most recent available.

Court commissioners are appointed by the local court leadership and receive about 85% the pay of a state court judge. Judgeships require appointment by the governor.

Lozada and English will receive annual pay of about $181,750, according to a Sonoma County Superior Court job bulletin. The positions run through June 30, 2021, the duration of the pilot program, and involve an alternative work schedule to ensure a pretrial commissioner is available to consider cases on weekends.

Lozada, who lives in Santa Rosa, has experience working on both sides of the courtroom — criminal defense and law enforcement. Lozada worked in law enforcement for 20 years as deputy then as a criminal investigator with the county District Attorney’s office. He earned his law degree from Empire College in 2007. He lives in Santa Rosa.

“It’s that perspective that I’ll bring to balance the rights and needs of the individual to being out of custody and the needs of the public safety and community well- being,” Lozada said.

English, who lives in Penngrove, has been working as a supervising research attorney with the Sonoma County Superior Court since 2011, a role that involves digging into complicated legal issues, new laws and court opinions to help judges make well-reasoned decisions in civil and criminal cases. He’s also overseen the court’s temporary judge program and has sat on the bench for some small claims matters. He graduated from George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.

“This pilot project is going to give Sonoma County the opportunity to be the head of the spear and really model what a good program looks like,” English said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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