Hundreds of Sonoma County inmates could be freed without bail after California court ruling

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Sonoma County inmates who remain locked up while they await the outcome of their cases could be freed under a recent state appeals court ruling that reduces or eliminates bail for people who cannot afford it.

The so-called Humphrey decision involving a San Francisco theft suspect who languished in jail is expected to have far-reaching effects on the state’s bail system, which has been criticized as being unfair to the poor. It says judges must now consider a defendant’s ability to pay before setting bail. If they are indigent, they may be released if they are not deemed a flight risk or a danger to the community, Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said.

The ruling may apply to hundreds of her destitute clients sitting in jail on charges ranging from petty theft to drug possession, Pozzi said.

“Why should the poor be treated any worse than the wealthy?” Pozzi said Friday, a week after the ruling from the First District Court of Appeal.

It comes as legislative efforts to overhaul the bail system appear to be stalled in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers last fall announced Senate Bill 10, which would mostly eliminate the money system and replace it with judicial risk assessments. But work on the bill was postponed to sometime this year. The bill had been opposed by bail agents and some law enforcement officials statewide who maintain posting bail is necessary to ensure defendants come to court.

“I believe that inequities exist in California’s bail system, and I look forward to working this fall on ways to reform the system in a cost-effective and fair manner, considering public safety as well as the rights of the accused,” Brown said in an August statement.

Sonoma County jail officials said they’re already doing what Brown and others are calling for.

Randall Walker, the assistant sheriff overseeing detention, said the county is in its fourth year of a program that assesses everyone who is booked and releases low- to moderate-risk defendants, without bail, at their first court appearance.

As of this week, Walker said, about 400 people were on “pretrial release” until their cases are concluded.

Because of the program, Walker said the Humphrey ruling will have little affect. About 60 percent of the jail’s 1,125 inmates are awaiting sentencing and have already been evaluated for release.

“I just don’t know how big an impact it would be on the numbers,” Walker said.

A spokesman for District Attorney Jill Ravitch said it was too soon to predict what would happen.

Meanwhile, some Sonoma County judges huddled last week to try to figure out the implications. Citing Humphrey, Judge Shelly Averill on Wednesday denied a prosecution request to remand an embezzlement suspect into jail custody after a jury returned guilty verdicts. Daniel Broin, who embezzled $100,000 from a Sonoma Valley nonprofit, was allowed to remain out of custody until his sentencing.

“My understanding is a lot of counties are going to meet with their justice partners (this) week to talk about it,” said Brad DeMeo, assistant presiding judge.

Pozzi said the ruling could be significant. Inmates previously denied pretrial release could be entitled to a bail hearing, at which time the court would consider their finances along with the other factors. If they can’t afford to pay scheduled bail, it would be reduced or eliminated.

Because public defender clients are all technically indigent, as many as 600 inmates could be freed from jail, Pozzi said.

Prosecutors would bear the burden of proving the individual inmates are unfit for release, she said.

“This is big,” Pozzi said. “Our clients are going to be treated like anybody else who has the means to post bail.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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