Sonoma County receives $5.76 million grant to boost alternatives to jail
Jailed inmates in Sonoma County may have more opportunities to await trial without being locked up under a pilot program designed to evaluate who needs to be incarcerated for public safety reasons — and who will succeed while free.
Supported by a new $5.76 million grant from the Judicial Council of California, Sonoma County Superior Court will add two court commissioners and a team of probation officers focused on fast-track evaluations of individuals booked into the jail. Presiding Judge Gary Nadler said the goal is to expand and improve pretrial release evaluations already in place to keep potentially dangerous people in custody while allowing others to get out, enabling them to maintain obligations to family and employers while awaiting the outcome of their cases.
“Everyone is presumed innocent, and if they’re in custody for too long and they lose their job it could start a spiral,” Nadler said. “It affects those with limited resources and (being released) could be the difference between homelessness and not, family separation and not. We want people to have a job, take care of themselves and their families.”
The Sonoma County Jail system, which includes the main adult facility near the courthouse and a minimum security facility near the airport, houses between 1,000 and 1,100 inmates on average, Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said. Based on an analysis of last week’s inmate population, about 61% of inmates had not yet been convicted and sentenced.
Critics of money bail policies, which allow inmates to put down money or some other form of property in exchange for their freedom while awaiting trial, have long argued it’s unfair because it’s based on wealth instead of public safety. The inequities are being discussed nationwide.
California was poised to become the first state to abolish money bail because of a new law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. But that plan was halted when a group led by the bail bonds industry gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the November 2020 ballot to quash the law. Supporters of the referendum have questioned the effectiveness of risk-assessment models for deciding who remains incarcerated and who gets out.
Jurisdictions like Sonoma County had already begun creating pretrial release programs, in part because of new laws passed over the last decade to reduce the prison population and shift more responsibility and resources to local jails and probation departments.
Sonoma County launched its program in 2015. Probation Chief David Koch said the initial criteria was based on a detailed analysis of 10,000 people booked into the Sonoma County Jail in 2014, yielding a dozen predictive factors for whether a person is more or less likely to commit a new crime and show up for court dates.
“We want to make sure our most expensive custodial resource is reserved for the people who need to be there,” Koch said.
Correctional deputies booking people into jail put together information about a defendant’s criminal history and the information is provided to a judge at the time of arraignment.
In 2017, a workgroup assembled by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye published a report based on a yearlong analysis that concluded the money bail system “unnecessarily compromises victim and public safety because it bases a person’s liberty on financial resources rather than the likelihood of future criminal behavior.”